AIDS Committee of Toronto holds final walk after significant cuts to services

·3 min read
For more than 30 years, ACT has held an AIDS walk in Toronto. On Sunday, the agency held its last walk, after transforming into a 'Rally for Health.' (Michael Charles Cole/CBC - image credit)
For more than 30 years, ACT has held an AIDS walk in Toronto. On Sunday, the agency held its last walk, after transforming into a 'Rally for Health.' (Michael Charles Cole/CBC - image credit)

The AIDS Committee of Toronto held its last Walk for AIDS on Sunday, after running the fundraising event for more than 30 years.

ACT, among other HIV service agencies, is calling on the federal government to increase funding after receiving notice of significant cuts to sexual and mental health services.

This year, due to the cuts, the organization changed the Walk for AIDS to a "Rally for Health."

ACT said it received notice in July from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) that its funding will be $450,000 less over the next five years starting in 2022.

ACT said it was told that its next round of federal funding, which is meant solely for time-limited projects, is being cut because applications for funding across Ontario have increased 400 per cent.

John Maxwell, executive director of ACT, said the agency is now trying to figure out how to maintain the services and support it offers, rather than improve and increase its work.

"We need support to continue moving forward," Maxwell said.

"That says to me, that there is a demand for this work and what they shouldn't be doing is cutting back. They should be investing more."

Maxwell said the agency decided to change this year's walk to a "Rally for Health" to highlight the importance of sexual and mental health services in light of COVID-19 that are needed now more than ever.

Michael Charles Cole/CBC
Michael Charles Cole/CBC

Christopher Draenos, a registered nurse at Casey House, which provides care to people living with HIV, said he attended the walk on Sunday to honour those with the disease who have died.

"We have all the tools that we need to end the HIV epidemic and to prevent anyone from dying from AIDS, yet we don't have the political will to do so," Draenos said.

"I hope that our political leaders implement things like pharmacare so that we are able to provide that to everyone."

Funding starting to become 'non-existent,' advocate says

Worried that a spike in HIV infection is looming due to a lack of testing during the pandemic, advocates say the cuts come at a time worse than ever.

Upwards of 600 clients are at risk of losing access to their programming because of the reduced funding, ACT said.

"Investments in community-based projects continue to be a pillar of our strategy and have remained stable for the past decade," PHAC said in a statement to CBC News.

But HIV-service advocates say stable is not good enough.

"The funding that we need to continue the work that we do is starting to become non-existent," said Randy Davis, Sexual Health Coordinator with the The Gilbert Centre.

Kira Wilks, a registered pharmacy technician in Toronto, said the cuts will hurt community organizations providing essential services to under-served communities.

"The research that has been done shows that Indigenous, People of Colour, and Gay and Bisexual individuals are at a greater risk of being exposed to HIV," Wilks said at the rally.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist who has worked extensively in the field of HIV prevention, said community organizations such as ACT are vital in the battle against HIV/AIDS.

"They prevent people from getting HIV through their work, or they ensure people who are positive getting timely diagnosis and are placed on treatment in a timely manner so that they don't get sick and also reduce transmission to other people ... they do a lot of work."

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