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Denise Becker remembers being told that she would eventually come to know someone infected with HIV. Trying to picture in her mind who that person could be, she hadn't the faintest idea that it was, in fact, her.

The news came all too devastatingly.

Months after Ms. Becker gave birth to her daughter in 1993, the child became extremely ill. Doctors discovered baby Katie had AIDS, and she died at home at the age of nine months. Around the same time, Ms. Becker and her husband were tested and she was found to be HIV-positive. She later learned she had been infected four years earlier while between marriages.

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"I was aware that it was out there," the 47-year-old Kelowna, B.C., resident said, "but never in a million years did I think I would get it."

But Ms. Becker's story may not be all that uncommon.

A report released yesterday by the Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that close to 15,000 Canadians have HIV/AIDS but don't know it. That's about a quarter of the estimated 58,000 people living with the virus at the end of last year.

"This happened to me and it could happen to anybody," Ms. Becker said. "It would be easier for me to live my life if people knew they could get it, too."

Ms. Becker -- who didn't have sex until her first marriage, who has been married to her current husband for 16 years and who has never injected drugs -- may not fit the typical profile of someone living with HIV in Canada.

But the numbers from the PHAC show that this may soon change, with more heterosexual women being diagnosed with HIV and AIDS than in the past.

Women now make up 20 per cent of all infections, up from 14 per cent in 2002, the last time estimates of the prevalence of HIV and AIDS were made in Canada.

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Women were also estimated to account for 27 per cent of new infections last year, up from 24 per cent in 2002.

Louise Binder, chair of the Canadian Treatment Action Council and who herself is HIV-positive, says this rise in infections among women can be attributed to social determinants of health, including a lack of negotiating power when it comes to sex.

"We don't have good female-initiated prevention methods. We have a female condom but it's very expensive and not very available, there's no microbicide," which could kill the virus in semen, Ms. Binder said.

But the groups most at risk of contracting HIV in Canada continue to be men who have sex with men (51 per cent of those infected) and people who inject drugs (17 per cent of those infected). Overall, an estimated 2,300 to 4,500 new HIV infections occurred last year, compared with between 2,100 and 4,000 in 2002.

Native people are still overrepresented in the epidemic and are almost three times more likely to be infected by HIV than are other Canadians, "highlighting the need for specific measures to address the unique aspects of certain groups," said Frank Plummer, director general of the Centre for Infectious Disease Prevention and Control. Other vulnerable groups include prisoners, at-risk young people such as sex workers, and people from countries where HIV is endemic.

"I wouldn't interpret this data to say the programs [to combat the disease]are not working, but certainly more needs to be done," Dr. Plummer said.

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"The number of Canadians living with HIV infection will likely continue to increase in years to come as new infection rates continue and survival rates improve."

Part of the reason for the continued increase in prevalence rates (or total number of people with the disease) can be attributed to triple-drug therapy, which is allowing people with HIV to live longer, fuller lives.

Kim Thomas, acting director of the Canadian AIDS Society, said this shift in demographics should play a big role in how the government addresses the AIDS issue in Canada.

"AIDS has become a disease that people are living with longer, so we're seeing more of an impact where people are moving into poverty because of the effect HIV/AIDS has had on their lives. They're unable to maintain a regular work situation."


AIDS report

In Canada, the groups most at risk of contracting HIV are men who have sex with men. However, more women are being diagnosed with HIV and AIDS than in the past. Native people are also overrepresented in the epidemic, being almost three times more likely than other Canadians to be infected.

AIDS in women

Women accounted for an estimated 27 per cent of all new infections last year. About three quarter of them were infected after having sex with an infected man, while the rest were attributed to injection drug usage.

Living with HIV in Canada


Women: 14%

Men: 85%


Women: 20%

Men: 80%

AIDS in natives

Percentage in population: 3.3%

Percentage AIDS sufferers: 7.5%


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