Saskatchewan at the centre of Canadian HIV scourge

With Saskatoon HIV rates on the rise, victims and authorities call for increased awareness and solutions to the problem

A National Post article reports a startling statistic revealed at a recent AIDS conference in South Africa: HIV rates among Saskatchewan’s indigenous people were comparable to or higher than that seen in many developing countries.

By the numbers, there were 1,458 HIV diagnoses from 2005 to 2014, according to the province. Of those, 203 died within a year of being diagnosed; whether the deaths were caused directly by AIDS or HIV infection isn’t clear. The number of new HIV cases in Saskatchewan hit 160 in 2015 – 48 more than the previous year’s numbers. The rate of new HIV cases in the province is twice the national average.

The rise in the number of cases is partly due to extensive testing done in certain communities. Aboriginal people from First Nations communities made up 71% of new diagnoses in 2014, according to the province – though the real figure could be higher.

Katelyn Roberts, director of Sanctum, Saskatchewan’s first AIDS hospice, said that HIV infections are often hidden, impacting marginalized people with a mistrust of the healthcare system and government. “We are a First World country with Third World rates,” she said. “Late diagnosis is insane here.”

Compounding the problem is the stigma faced by those diagnosed with HIV. Mary Bear, 33, was an addict using cocaine and morphine on the streets when she contracted HIV seven years ago. “When I go speak to people, I can pinpoint the people who are disgusted by me,” she said. “It hurts.”

Bear is not alone. She knows individuals who refuse to see a doctor because they are afraid of being judged as addicts and victims of HIV. Her husband also has the disease; their son, who will turn three next month, is lucky to not have it.

“It’s a socio-economic disease. It will affect where you don’t have good health care and medical coverage,” said Chief Felix Thomas of the Saskatoon Tribal Council. STC runs a harm reduction clinic where a client is entertained every three or four minutes on average. The workers’ non-judgmental approach towards addicts encourages people to visit the clinic.

All these stories and statistics point to one conclusion: the problem of HIV in Saskatchewan is real, and it must be addressed.

“People need to wake up and realize we are the HIV hot spot for North America,” said Jason Mercredi of AIDS Saskatoon. Saskatchewan has gone without an official HIV/AIDS strategy since 2014, and aggressive anti-HIV strategies such as those proposed by the UN have not been adopted.

To Mercredi, the solution has to go beyond provincial government; it should include changing attitudes towards harm-reduction strategies like needle exchanges and safe-injection sites. “Harm reduction is the only way to go with people who are marginalized,” he said.

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