By Elizabeth Kuhr
The Toronto Health Center is considered the first spa in the world to be exclusively staffed by HIV-positive therapists or "healers." On the occasion of World AIDS Day, Casey House, a hospital that cares for patients with HIV infection, has launched the Pop-Up Spa, which offers free massages and facials for HIV-positive people for two days.
The goal? To combat the discrimination and stigma faced by 37 million people worldwide with HIV.
"This stigma affects people's lives every day," said healer Xica Dadiva. "If I want something to change for me, I have to be involved."
The project had one major goal: to encourage people to promote their beliefs and perceptions about HIV-positive people. The spa is located in a 7,000 square meter, rented area in downtown Toronto. The walls share acceptance messages in bold text, such as "These hands heal, and they are HIV +" and "Relax your anxiety."
"What our HIV-positive patients really miss is touch because people are scared," said Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House, to NBC News. "It's a lack of enlightenment and fear. The connection between people is missing."
The 18 HIV-positive "healers", as the Healing House calls them, are not therapists. So the therapists of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and the local cosmetics brand Provence Apothecary trained the group. All 164 Mini Facial and Neck, Head and Hand Massage appointments are free.
"We are pushing boundaries to create debate, and this issue makes people uncomfortable," Simons said. "We want people to know the facts, feel the emotions and question their thinking."
When the crisis hit Americans for the first time, people vaguely believed that HIV could be transmitted by touch, and refused to accept skin-to-skin contact with HIV-positive people. To this day, the fear remains: Simons said some HIV-positive patients receiving massage therapy at the hospital say it was the only time they were touched by anyone.
According to UNAIDS, about one in eight HIV-infected people denied health care services for discrimination. Almost half of North Americans (46 percent) say they find it uncomfortable to share skin contact with someone who is HIV-positive. This resulted in a survey by Casey House, which had led to this event.
"The whole idea is to confront people with their fears," said Joseph Bonnici, executive executive director of advertising agency Bensimon Byrne, who co-organized the spa. "So, what could be more effective than an HIV-positive spa? It's 100 percent safe, it's impossible to transmit HIV, and people need to know."
The disclosure of HIV status was not easy for many healers.
As Randy Davis, a sexual health coordinator, was first diagnosed with an Ontario LGBTQ center. He said the last thing he wanted to do was share his status. He said he was only 39 years old because he had fear and hatred that fueled the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
"I do not think anyone would want to be in a relationship with me not to let me touch." Davis said. "I became a victim of self-stigmatization."
Davis is one of 18 HIV-positive therapists at Healing House. He said he has the privilege to receive treatment that is not always accessible to all people living with HIV, but he has been discriminated against for his positive status.
"Even if I only influenced one person and made them feel like there was no reason to be frightened it was a huge success," said Davis, feeling moved by the experience. "The virus is very manageable, it's the stigma that really is the disease."
Once the project was announced, people started writing negative responses online. The spa organizers gathered a team of moderators who were instructed to use HIV / AIDS facts to combat the hateful comments and posts.
"It's a tremendous courage to come to the spa of the healing center," said Ron Rosenes, the alternative practitioner to other healers. "This can affect people who know little about HIV, it's an incredible opportunity."
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