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ABOVE: Adrian Betts, the executive director at the AIDS Committee of Durham

Empowering Youth To Be Leaders In Their Own Care

In southern Ontario, the AIDS Committee of Durham is working to provide much-needed support and resources to people affected by HIV and AIDS…

The HIV rates among young Canadians are on the rise. Research and resources are essential to better understand sexual health experiences of Canadian youth, attitudes towards people living with HIV, substance use patterns, and mental health. These ongoing needs have been one of the driving forces behind the work of AIDS Committee of Durham (ACDR), a grassroots organization that has been committed to supporting the HIV community in southern Ontario, especially youth living with HIV, for more than 30 years.

ACDR is a community-based, non-profit organization with a mission to create a safe and healthy community, free from stigma, where every person has the opportunity for a meaningful and fulfilling life. It serves as a “one-stop shop” for HIV care and support in Durham region, offering testing, outreach, education and counselling, and linkage to care. ACDR also offers harm reduction services and practical supports including a food bank and social events for people who may be experiencing isolation in the community. 

However, it’s ACDR’s work with youth who are living with HIV/AIDS and related co-infections that has been life-altering for many, according to Adrian Betts, who has been the executive director at the ACDR for over 14 years. Betts knows first-hand the impact HIV can have. As a gay man and a long-term survivor living with HIV, he has worked at many HIV service organizations and other social justice services. Betts recently reflected to IN that he began working in the HIV/AIDS sector back in 1989 at the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (PWA). Today, of all of the people he worked with at PWA, he is the only one still alive, having lost many friends and colleagues to HIV/AIDS during the height of the epidemic.

Challenges impacting youth living with HIV

As Betts explains, there are unique challenges impacting youth living with HIV that require solutions to better support them. The teenage brain has different priorities, and they can struggle with risk assessment and decision making. Youth living with HIV often struggle with peer pressure, anxiety around disclosing their status and in relationships. Racism, homophobia and slut-shaming are other persisting concerns impacting youth living with HIV as they navigate transitioning into the adult care system.

Unwavering commitment to youth

When Betts joined ACDR 14 years ago, he noticed they had a lot of teenage clients from across Durham region. Through his work with the ACDR, Betts has become a leader on issues involving youth living with HIV and transitioning from pediatric to adult care; he recently facilitated the creation of the Transition Accord; a document outlining the best way to make the transition from pediatric to adult HIV care. The extensive document includes commitments from youth living with HIV, pediatric HIV clinics and adult HIV clinics. 

The HYPE Program

Navigating the teenage years is never easy, and when a young person lives with HIV, their world can feel upside-down with few places to turn. So, in an effort to support youth living with HIV, ACDR created the HYPE (HIV & Youth Peer Engagement) Program with funding from ViiV Healthcare Canada. This initiative addresses the negative health outcomes facing young people living with HIV in a number of ways: building capacity among young people living with HIV in order to better prepare them for the adult care system; reducing social isolation by building a network of peers to provide support; and communication and co-operation between facilities in the pediatric and adult health care systems. 

HYPE also offers a sleepaway and virtual camp that accommodates more than 80 youth living with HIV between the ages of 11 and 16. Youth at camp are able to discuss important issues with likeminded peers and support staff including gender identity, living with HIV, STIs and demystifying sex. Taking things a step further, in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada, ACDR received funding to create the HYPE Summit, bringing together HIV-positive youth from across the province to participate in workshops, share their experiences with peers, and connect face-to-face with health care professionals that specialize in HIV care.

According to Betts, we need to acknowledge that despite their age, many youths living with HIV are experts in their disease, especially those who have lived with the virus since birth. Meeting youth where they are and understanding that their priorities may differ from those of an adult is key to supporting a smooth and productive transition to adult HIV care. At a broader systemic level, the racism, misogyny, and homophobia within the healthcare system must be addressed if we are to improve the experiences of youth as they move through different stages of their care journeys. 

To learn more about AIDS Committee of Durham and resources available to support people living with HIV, visit

To learn more about ViiV Healthcare Canada visit

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