REGINA (CUP) — People in Saskatchewan have every reason to unite on Dec. 1 for World AIDS Day. According to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health, the HIV rate in Saskatchewan is twice the national average.
In the rest of Canada, approximately nine out of every 100,000 people have been infected with HIV, compared to approximately twenty-one out of every 100,000 people in Saskatchewan. Worse still, the number of new cases alarmed health officials in early 2009, a year and a half before the ministry of health released the most recent data — and there’s been near-total silence on the subject since.
As the numbers grow, Saskatchewan faces the biggest HIV/AIDS epidemic in Canada, and the high rates of infection are mainly due to intravenous drug use. Seventy-five per cent of new HIV cases are associated with drug users and needle sharing.
“Injection drug use is very pervasive in the aboriginal and Métis community in the province. We have a very different population than anyone else in the country,” said Susanne Nasewich, an HIV strategy coordinator for the province. “They are more disenfranchised and vulnerable and harder to engage into any kind of care. Our focus is to prevent any kind of transmission or infection and to meet people where they’re at.”
In 2009, aboriginal people accounted for 79 per cent of all new HIV cases.
At a First Nations HIV/AIDS awareness workshop held a few weeks ago at the Gathering Place, a community centre in the North Central Regina neighbourhood, aboriginal elder Margaret Cody shared the story of how she lost her eldest son to AIDS. He was a drug addict who contracted the disease from sharing needles and died on Nov. 14, 2004.
“The weekend he died, I was on the reserve. I wasn’t there,” said Cody, who now has a 24-year-old grandson infected with HIV.
“He was alone when he died. By the time we got [to] the hospital, he had died 10 minutes before that. As a mother, that was the hardest death I ever had to deal with.”
Margaret Poitras has spent her life working with people infected with HIV/AIDS in Regina. For the last 13 years, she has worked at with the All Nations Hope AIDS Network located in North Central. In that time, she’s seen first-hand the effects of the HIV/AIDS infection rates, but she believes part of the problem is that many people haven’t.
“We don’t see them laying on a sidewalk, but we do have people that are desperate, who are living in poverty, who are living with many different health and social conditions,” Poitras said. “We aren’t addressing it adequately.”
Poitras added that more work needs to be done to make connections with the most vulnerable in society: those who are homeless, living in poverty or living with drug addictions.
“They aren’t making it to the doors. They aren’t getting the help they need, they aren’t getting tested,” she said. “We need to have a really good understanding of the type of population we are dealing with to be effective in addressing HIV.”
Not everyone believes Saskatchewan’s HIV infection rates are an urgent problem. While he acknowledges that HIV is an issue in Saskatchewan, Regina mayor Pat Fiacco downplayed the importance of the Ministry of Health’s statistics, saying the province’s difficulties aren’t unique.
“It’s no different than any other city in Canada or in the world. We’re not immune to what is happening elsewhere in the world,” he said. “I think if you can’t get the help that you need with whatever it is that you’re suffering from in this city, you’ll never get it anywhere else.”
Nasewich and Poitras disagree with the mayor.
“From a social determinant perspective, there is a lot more we can do,” Nasewich said. She said more housing would be the biggest thing to address in the fight against HIV in the city.
“Every time you put someone into a home, that is taking it away, possibly, for someone else.”
Poitras said the disease of addiction is being ignored.
“You look at the disease of addiction and what is happening in many of our communities,” Poitras said. “There is a lot of stigma, ignorance and discrimination with addiction, but it also associated with HIV and it is also associated with aboriginal people. So there are a lot of factors we are fighting against so we can move people forward.”