A VOICE INTERVIEW – U of A Scholar Has A Unique Approach to Understanding the Impact of AIDS.

A VOICE INTERVIEW – U of A Scholar Has A Unique Approach to Understanding the Impact of AIDS.

Something you learn from attending university is that every one’s academic interests are a unique blend of disciplines that may derive from personal interests, professional experience, career goals, and the course offerings of their particular university. While many students eventually settle on a single focus, some may choose to split their time between two or more seemingly incongruous but equally appealing subjects. The luckiest – and wisest – are those who find a way to carve out their own professional niche by integrating their diverse interests and exploring the common ground where they become symbiotic.

Dr. Diana Davidson, a post doctoral fellow with the University of Alberta, has done just that. Davidson, who spoke with me this week about her new book project and her related work, has a degree in literature (a Doctorate of Philosophy in English and Related Literature from the University of York), and she also has an extensive resume in AIDS education and community work. In this capacity, she has worked both locally, as an employee with the South Peace AIDS Council in Grande Prairie (now the HIV North Society (SEE: http://www.hivnorth.org/history.html)), and abroad, where she worked as a contract AIDS educator in rural England.

Rather than continuing to pursue the two as separate passions, Davidson decided to “merge the two things I love: literature and AIDS community work.” While some detractors felt that the merging of the two could not make for a successful career, Davidson has found the two studies to be complementary.

Her focus now is how people use writing and art to respond to the AIDS epidemic both locally and throughout the world. Currently, Dr. Davidson is seeking submissions for a book entitled The Art Of Living: Albertans Write HIV/AIDS.

This type of project is not new to Davidson: her doctoral thesis – Writing HIV/AIDS in the West after 1990 – “explores, and supports, the belief that writing can offer a way through the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” and her current fellowship with the University of Alberta, Women Writing Postcolonial AIDS, further explores these ideas.

Through her studies, Davidson has come to believe that “literature allows people to express their feelings about AIDS in a way that is much more revealing than non-fiction.” She also observes that in Canada, where we enjoy an exceptionally high literacy rate (SEE: http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/rma/eppi-ibdrp/SI/prr2001/lit_e.asp); “anyone can buy a newspaper for less than a dollar; and books are everywhere” written materials are very accessible tools for expressing how people feel. Literature can be very empowering, and a “form of activism” where people can explore their real feelings in a creative way.

Encouraging this form of expression is especially important in relation to AIDS, because in recent years dialogue about the disease has been sparse. Davidson is concerned about this silence:

“AIDS is a fragile virus, and it cannot live long outside the human body, but sexual transmission is one area where it not only survives, but thrives.” Education and open discussion are essential for prevention.

Nevertheless, the media coverage on AIDS in North America has declined, while attention focuses on the progress of the epidemic in European and third world countries. This shift in focus was particularly apparent to Davidson this year as we approached World AIDS Day (SEE: http://www.worldaidsday.org/).

“A few years ago, there was so much coverage on World AIDS day. This time, there was very little, and what there was focused on AIDS in other countries, like in Africa and the Caribbean. Certainly, we have a global responsibility to help these countries deal with their epidemic, but we have to balance that with work in Alberta.”

Our reluctance to talk about AIDS in Alberta is complicated, and stems from a number of issues. Davidson feels that two factors are significant:

1. Many believe that HIV here is not as bad as it is in Coastal Africa, the Caribbean, and the Ukraine and so we are complacent.

2. It’s just unimaginable, for many people, that it could be as bad as it sounds: We are in denial.

She also feels that there is a lot of silence around AIDS because it is linked to behaviours that we often frame in a moral context, such as sexuality and IV drug use. Davidson does not herself believe that that morality is a factor in either of these issues, but as a society we may tend to perceive them that way. This perception makes it harder to have open dialogue about the disease:

“AIDS is a unique epidemic because it forces you to ask what you really believe about sexuality and what you really believe about IV drug use, in a very urgent way.” [With AIDS], “there are a lot of myths that betray deeply entrenched cultural values about sex” but a lot of progress has been made toward being more open about sexuality.

Another factor that makes it harder to talk about AIDS, is that it is such a “complicated risk,” linked to a number of social factors: Race, culture, social class, economic status, education, the status of women, and general living conditions are all factors when accessing AIDS risk. These same factors have been linked to susceptibility for a number of health problems and diseases, but with the advent of AIDS, we have been forced to recognize this more explicitly. “AIDS forces us to take a more holistic view of the disease risk factors” than we do with other diseases, says Davidson.

Poverty and poor education and living conditions are risk factors for AIDS, and “who is more likely to be poor?” asks Davidson, “people in underdeveloped countries. We are seeing a completely different epidemic between the rich and the poor.”

This not only makes it more difficult to talk about AIDS, but also has led to the misconception that the type of AIDS we see in Canada is not as serious a disease as the third world version. Concern about further stigmatizing the poor leads to silence about the significance of poverty as a factor that leads to higher AIDS susceptibility.

If there is any doubt that cultural and societal pressures prevent the free dissemination of information about AIDS prevention, Davidson points out an example of the effect of cultural influences on education from her own experience as an AIDS educator in England:

From her own experience, she has noticed “some alarming attitudes toward IV drug use in other countries. Here we have programs like Street Works [in Edmonton – see contact information below], that are open, tolerant and compassionate toward drug users,” and offer harm reduction programs such as clean needles and HIV information for addicts.

In rural England, they were not as open about IV drug use, and taught little about its link to AIDS. “Although Britain dealt with sexual health and HIV prevention in a sophisticated way, the AIDS organizations that I was involved with in England were not very involved in drug use [compared to some Canadian organizations]. They had fewer programs to help those who use IV drugs protect themselves from disease transmission.” Davidson notes that these observations are based on her own experiences in England and Canada, and that the situation in London or other metropolitan areas might be different.

Even in North America, silence has lead to a number of misconceptions about AIDS, and a lack of funding for research into drugs or other products that might be of immediate help. “So much attention is being placed on finding a vaccine,” notes Davidson, but for the present, we should also place more emphasis on “developing a microbicide, which women can use to protect themselves from the virus, especially in situations where safe sex is not something they can negotiate.” [see brief article at the end of this page for more information on microbicides].

Communication and education are the only things that can combat the spread of the AIDS virus, and our knowledge of AIDS is also what sets it apart from the historical plagues that it is often compared to.

Davidson does not like the comparisons between AIDS and the bubonic plague that devastated 14th century England: “AIDS is a unique epidemic in that we are in the midst of it, but we have the ability to view it culturally and socially at the same time.” With the plague, no one really knew what caused it, and there was nothing you could do to prevent it, whereas “we do have knowledge of what causes AIDS and how we can prevent it.”

Making sure that people have this information available to them depends on open discussion about AIDS in our own country. Davidson believes that literature is one of our most empowering forms of expression about AIDS. Through stories, poetry, and art, we can express what is perhaps not quite socially acceptable, and come to terms with the fear and uncertainty that the AIDS virus brings to all of our lives.

Davidson’s new book project – The Art of Living: Albertans Write HIV/AIDS – seeks to uncover and explore some of the deep-seated cultural beliefs that AIDS has challenged. Unlike most conventional AIDS books, this one focuses on fiction and other creative forms of writing including biographies, poetry, stories, and essays, and she has also received a proposal for a brief history of AIDS in Alberta. The aim of this book, is to give Albertans a creative forum in which to explore their beliefs and underlying assumptions about AIDS, and how the advent of the pandemic has altered our lives.

I’d like to thank Dr. Davidson for speaking with me about her project, and her unique field of study.

Submissions for Dr. Diana Davidson’s book: The Art of Living: Albertans Write HIV/AIDS can be sent to:

Diana Davidson,
3-5 Humanities Centre,
University of Alberta,
Edmonton AB., T6G 2E5
or via email: diana.davidson@ualberta.ca.

Dr. Diana Davidson’s U of A Web site:

Street Works
Boyle Street Co-op
10116-105 Avenue, Edmonton, AB T5H 0K2
Phone: (780) 424-4106 ext. 210
Fax: (780) 425-2205
Contact: Marliss Taylor, Team Manager

Information adapted from Microbicides Now! (http://www.thebody.com/apla/apr01/microbicides.html) By Susan Forrest and IAPAC (http://www.iapac.org/).

“Simply stated, a microbicide is any agent that kills or deactivates disease-causing microbes.” These include “‘therapeutic interventions that can block or prevent infection, as well as amplification of the body’s natural defenses to prevent infection through sexual acts.’ [IAPAC]”

In the past decade, the proportion of women infected with HIV has grown alarmingly. In some countries, women have little power to demand that men use condoms, and even in North America, many women succumb to pressure to have unprotected sex. Those women who are victims of sexual assault or domestic violence have no opportunity to negotiate condom use. To protect themselves, women need unobtrusive but effective HIV protection that they can use on their own, without the consent of their partner.

The best known of these substances so far, is Nonoxynol-9 – a commonly used spermicide used in condom lubrication. However, Nonoxynol-9 may be the least effective of the proposed microbicides, and in fact may increase the risk of AIDS transmission.

There is an immediate need for effective microbicides to reduce new AIDS in infections in women. However, progress has been slow, because most funding dollars are going toward finding an AIDS vaccine which may not be developed for some time.

For more information on Microbicides:

Microbicides Now!: Why Microbicide Development Must Progress Quickly
By Susan Forrest: http://www.thebody.com/apla/apr01/microbicides.html

International Association of Physicians in AIDS care (IAPAC): http://www.iapac.org/

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