Helping spread the word
Inmates teach inmates how to avoid HIV/AIDS infection

Cindy MacDougall
Northern News Services

NNSL (Oct 27/99) - Joshua Adam says he didn't know much about AIDS or HIV when he signed up to be a peer educator at the Yellowknife Correctional Centre.

Cause for concern

Although there are few reported cases of HIV or AIDS in the Northwest Territories, public health officials say we have cause for concern.

Wanda White, communicable disease consultant for the Department of Health and Social Services, said there are 32 reported cases of AIDS or HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. But she said the low number may be deceiving.

"People may come from down south who have already been diagnosed and therefore are not reported in our numbers," she said. "Or people may be going down South to be tested."

The department does not keep community- or region-based statistics in order to protect the privacy of infected people.

White said our numbers may be low, but the NWT's rate of infection -- 1.5 people infected per 100,000 residents -- is the same as the national average.

And our rate of infection is "slightly different" than the rest of Canada, she said.

"We have a higher rate of women being infected in the Northwest Territories," she said. "So we have to make sure women are getting tested."

White said anyone can be tested for HIV in confidentiality by visiting their local health clinic, doctor or the STD Clinic in Yellowknife.


"I got involved in the first peer educator program (last April) because of self-interest in HIV and AIDS," he said. "I wanted to educate myself, first and foremost. I had a lot of questions, but not a lot of answers."

Adam, 20, is one of about a dozen inmates at YCC who are HIV/AIDS peer educators. They meet once a week at the centre with Gail Gaudon, senior support worker for the Help Line and HIV/AIDS Information Line run by the Canadian Mental Health Association, NWT Division.

Gaudon said peer educators give out information on AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, through discussion with other inmates, presentations and skits. They also pass out cards with the info line's number.

She said the peer educator program has had an impact on the inmates and the info line.

"We've had an increase in calls to the line from the centre," Gaudon said. "Inmates have access to a phone and the peer educators have passed out cards with the number."

Adam said he tries to be casual when talking to other inmates about AIDS.

"If I overhear two people talking about, say, HIV and safe tattooing, I might say, 'Hey, you can do this or this to protect yourself,'" he said. "It's their life and their options."

Besides casually spreading the word on safe sex and other ways to avoid HIV infection, Adam and the other peer educators put on skits for the inmates and guards at the centre about how to avoid the virus.

"We had a lot of fun making up the skits, figuring out how to make them informative and more interesting," Adam said.

"When people see a skit, and think, 'hey, that was really funny,' they might remember the message better than if we lectured them."

The educators have taken their message outside the prison walls, too. They visited both Dettah and Ndilo two weeks ago and presented skits in the community centres.

Gaudon said the visits had a dual purpose.

"We wanted to get the message out into the community and get teens interested in starting a similar program," she said.

Adam said there's still a lot of misconceptions in the North about HIV infection.

"There's still a belief out there that AIDS is for IV (intravenous) drug users and homosexuals," he said. "But it can happen to anyone, from a grandma to a little baby."