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Kyle Vose, a volunteer at Toronto People with AIDS, and HIV positive himself, photographed at the food bank of the organization on Gerrard St., Toronto.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

In the months after he found out he was infected with HIV, the new father watched helplessly as his life crumbled.

"A year and a half ago, I had a beautiful wife, a good job and a house, and a wonderful son who was just born. And now I'm working in construction, and I no longer have a house, I no longer have a wife, and I see my son once a week," said the 41-year-old resident of Southwestern Ontario who, for fear of the social stigma, requested anonymity.

He is in treatment and has finally begun to accept the realities of living with the virus, contracted during unprotected sex in his younger days. Still, he remains fearful of moving forward in any new relationship. New research suggests that the chance of the virus being transmitted is negligible while he's on antiretroviral therapy, but despite giant leaps forward in diagnosis and treatment, HIV remains widely misunderstood.

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The reckless and highly publicized behaviour of a handful of characters, and the criminal prosecution of those who transmit the virus has fed into the social stigma, causing HIV-positive people to retreat further into isolation. "I'm hopeful about my future. I feel better today than I did a month ago, or six months ago. But in terms of dating, I have no idea," the man said.

This fear clashes with the mounting evidence that a cocktail of highly active antiretroviral drugs, and safe sex, can prevent the human immunodeficiency virus from spreading and limit the damage it inflicts on the infected person's immune system. If an HIV-positive person is being treated in a couple where one has it and the other doesn't, the chance of the virus being transmitted is reduced by more than 90 per cent, according to published research.

It's not a death sentence, and it just shouldn't be treated as a crime. Mark Tyndall

The research was done on heterosexual couples in Africa; it's not clear how it translates to gay men in North America. And new findings presented at the International AIDS Society conference in Vienna this week also show that antiretroviral drugs slow the progression of HIV-AIDS symptoms and decrease viral loads in blood and other biological fluids, especially when people are treated early.

"HIV is just not what it used to be. People live very normal lives that are HIV-positive, and they take their treatment and it's extremely effective. It's not a death sentence, and it just shouldn't be treated as a crime," said Mark Tyndall, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia.

Yet Canada prosecutes a high number of people with HIV. The country is second only to the United States in criminal prosecutions of people who have infected others with HIV, a study has shown. More than 600 people worldwide have been convicted of infecting a sexual partner with the virus or potentially exposing others; Canada has convicted 63 individuals. Some involved cases of unprotected sex where no infection occurs. Others, like the case of Johnson Aziga, are much more serious. Mr. Aziga of Hamilton was convicted last year of two counts of first-degree murder after he infected two sexual partners with HIV. Both women died of AIDS-related cancers.

Dr. Tyndall said that while such cases are rare, they garner headlines in the media and stoke panic. "That's just not the face of HIV in Canada," he said, adding that most patients being treated for HIV-AIDS with drug cocktails have undetectable levels of virus in their bloodstream.

"As far as risk of infection goes, I think that it's very small. We can't say it's zero. It's close to zero," he said.

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The 41-year-old whose life changed after he found out he had HIV said he can't help but feel that those with the virus are treated like pariahs in social settings. He found out he was infected after applying for life insurance. The company, which ran tests, immediately told him to call his doctor. He was afraid to pick up his son for three months after finding out.

His wife left him 10 months later. She was afraid, they were no longer physically close and his HIV-positive status came up during every fight. He was fired from his job in corporate sales, unable to concentrate and losing all self-confidence.

To this day, he has only told a couple of friends. He doesn't know when he will have the strength to tell a prospective romantic partner or enter a relationship. He signed up on a dating site for HIV-positive people, but hasn't had much luck finding anyone.

"I can explain to somebody that the chances of transmitting [the virus]to them is almost zero. But if somebody were to tell me that, before I knew as much as I do now, I would be apprehensive. How could I ask somebody else to go through that?" he asked.

Kyle Vose has found a way to move past the stigma: Approach it head-on.

When he found out eight years ago he was infected after getting a tattoo, he went into hiding. "I felt I had to keep it a secret. Nobody could find out. Nobody could know. I didn't feel like I could trust anybody," said Mr. Vose, a 37-year-old Toronto resident.

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That became unacceptable. When approached at bars, for example, he would directly tell people he was infected. Some men stuck around. Not everyone did. "If I kept that stigma and I didn't say anything, there's people that would have wrong information out there … and that was worse for me," said Mr. Vose, a public speaker for the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. "I really had to change the way I thought about it."

Not everyone is so upfront. T.J., a 31-year-old single mother, said she only tells men with whom she sees a future. The social stigma is so alive that she's convinced she'll be judged, and that her five-year-old son, who doesn't have the virus, will be treated differently.

"I don't know how it was back in 1980s, being a gay man," said T.J., who requested her name be withheld. "But here I am in 2010, and I don't think we have come that far. People think it's drug addicts and sex workers that get it. They don't realize it can happen to anybody."

The 41-year-old man from Southwestern Ontario is hopeful things will change. But first he has to muster enough confidence to begin a relationship, or perhaps even go on a date.

"I can't imagine going the rest of my life, frankly, without sex, or without a companion, without somebody there with me. So I hope I will [be able to date]" he said.

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Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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