'The HIV epidemic isn't over': 2nd of its kind HIV pharmacy opens in Toronto

When Don Semple was diagnosed with the HIV virus about 20 years ago, he says he was "devastated" — and in much bleaker situation than he is now. 

"It was tough," Semple told CBC Toronto. "So very few people knew about it." 

But with the medical advances of the last two decades and a shift in attitudes about the disease, he says having HIV was "no longer a death sentence."

"It's been better, it's a lot easier, with support of course," Semple said. 

Semple says for him, the majority of that support over the past two decades has come from Zahid Somani, the owner of Toronto's first independent HIV testing site and pharmacy, which opened a second location downtown ahead of World AIDS Day on Sunday. 

"I had a lot of questions for [Somani] and he would answer them, and it helped me out," Semple said. "Having a clinic opens up a positive space."

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The Village Pharmacy offers up that space to anyone in need. As a full-service pharmacy, members of the public can go to fill prescriptions, seek advice and get tested for free. 

It's also the first walk-in pharmacy to offer HIV testing in Ontario, the owner says. 

The new space, located at at 535 Yonge St., marks the first location outside Toronto's gay village. The existing pharmacy is located at 473 Church St., near Wellesley Street, and opened in 2001. 

"The HIV epidemic isn't over," Somani told CBC Toronto at the unveiling ceremony of the second location on Saturday.

Somani says one in every seven people with the virus don't know they're positive. 

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"If they don't know they're positive they don't go on treatment and then they can pass the infection on," Somani said. 

"Once they're on treatment, they're non-infectious." 

521 cases in Toronto last year

In total for the year of 2018, there were 521 cases of sexually transmitted HIV infections, according to data from Toronto Public Health. 

Of those cases, 61 per cent were transmitted through same-sex encounters and 35 per cent were transmitted through sex with the opposite sex. 

"We were hoping [the number of cases] would go lower, as more people access treatments, which are great these days, but they're not," Somani said. 

In fact, the data shows that cases of HIV in Toronto are on the rise.

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Although Somani says there are at-risk pockets of the population that the pharmacy targets, "even women" are susceptible to the virus and represent one in every four new infections. 

"Everyone needs to be concerned," he said. 

Initial symptoms are often flu-like, Somani says, adding that anyone who has had unprotected sex or used injection drugs should get tested. 

"We're hoping to get more people on treatment and improve their lives. 

Education needed to 'get rid of hate'

Because the virus affects so many people, Kristyn Wong-Tam, councillor for Ward 13, Toronto Centre, says safe spaces like the pharmacy do much more than just diagnose clients — they help end a long-standing stigma. 

"A pharmacy that specializes in HIV care and treatment and being able to deliver that service without judgment, without discrimination, without stigma, is vitally important," she said on Saturday. 

Talia Ricci/CBC

Despite that progress, Semple says there's still a long way to go. 

"The perception has changed but I don't think it's a 180-degree change," he said. 

"Try to get rid of stigmas, try to get rid of hate." 

And talk to people about the virus, he says. 

"Sit down and talk to someone, just to vent or just to be scared, without judgment."