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Museum Monday: Progress around HIV/AIDS in Vancouver

by Craig Scharien

Founded in 1983 by a small group of men in the West End, AIDS Vancouver is now celebrating their 30th anniversary. The founders took initiative despite the fact that only six cases of HIV/AIDS had been reported in the city at the time. The group began attending health conferences, distributing information, and planning local action and forums, thus laying the groundwork for AIDS Vancouver. In the 30 years since, the organization has evolved into a vital component of Vancouver’s health care system. They offer numerous services – case management and support programs, a supplemental grocery service and fundraising, just to name a few. Perhaps their most crucial role is raising awareness about a disease which is now often seen as chronic rather than fatal.

The evolution HIV/AIDS awareness can be seen in posters like the ones on display in Sex Talk in the City. Initially posters were aimed primarily at gay men and focussed on prevention: like reminders to wear condoms. Today, posters are far less direct and are more broadly focussed. The priority has moved from prevention to knowing your status and getting tested. One of the more recent posters features a man of Asian descent with the slogan “Get Tested” showing insight into the population demographics of Vancouver and their focus on testing.

Evolution can also be seen in treatment; the cocktail of drugs has been streamlined and has become far more effective. Viviane Gosselin, curatorial lead for Sex talk in the City was keen to show this progression, but finding ‘vintage’ pills was not easy.

“I had not anticipated that the most difficult artefacts to acquire for Sex Talk in the City would be the HIV/AIDS pills," explained Gosselin. "I talked to several organizations and representatives from drug companies and the responses were either: ‘we don’t keep old pills’ or ‘we are not allowed to let drugs circulate in the public’. We had dedicated people at the BC Centre for the Disease Control who investigated on our behalf and located a researcher at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS Research who ‘collects’ old HIV/AIDS pills, starting with the first pill regimen from the late 1980s. After reassuring this researcher that public access to the pills would be limited to seeing (not touching or tasting!) we were able to proceed with a loan.  This process took several months!”

The evolution of piles of pills to today’s doses can be seen in Sex Talk in the City thanks to her sourcing.

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