Crystal meth could be making the HIV epidemic in Saskatchewan worse, according to local physicians.
“We’re seeing more crystal meth use than we have seen in the past, which is extremely troubling,” said Dr. Kris Stewart, internal medicine physician involved with HIV, Hepatitis C and TB care in Saskatchewan and co-director of Saskatchewan HIV/AIDS Research Endeavor (SHARE).
For some of his clients, the use started when they had to leave their homes during the forest fires this summer.
“I do clinics all over the north, and what happened during that evacuation is that they were doing fairly well, they were stable, in recovery, they were on treatment. That evacuation really unsettled a lot of people and exposed them to drugs they haven’t done before and that’s injected a lot of chaos into the situation,” he said.
“So crystal [meth] is a problem because we don’t have a drug like methadone to help people get off of it. So this is a worry, it is a huge worry.”
The drug has moved from being a middle-class drug, to one that affects people who are lower income, said Cory Rennie, interim manager of Addictions Services for the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region.
“We started to see little hints of it before summer started. April, May, we started to have a few clients that would come and present that they had been using this, and it’s just increased since then. I’m not sure what prompted its influx into the community, but I know that it’s been steadily increasing since that time.”
Across northern First Nations, addictions specialists have seen an increase in crystal meth use over the past two years, with it reaching epidemic proportion, said Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka, the medical health officer for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA).
NITHA works with Lac La Ronge Indian Band, the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, Meadow Lake Tribal Council, and Prince Albert Grand Council.
“It’s appears that the situation is getting worse by the day,” Ndubuka said.
There seems to be a relationship between crystal meth and HIV, largely because of injection drug use, he said.
Crystal meth can affect the immune system and that can accelerate the progression of HIV. It is a particularly significant issue for pregnant women using crystal meth, because the amount of the virus in their system may increase.
“When the viral load increases in their system then that increases the risk of transmission of the virus from the mother to the baby,” Ndubuka said.
“It might become difficult to get the treatment because of the chaotic lifestyle that they live when they get involved with the use of crystal meth.”
In 2015, there were two babies born with HIV, and a third case is under investigation. Numbers from 2015 show the downward trend of new HIV cases in the province has stopped. While they have not been finalized, 2015 shows spikes of new cases in Prince Albert and Saskatoon.
This frustrates Stewart, who through SHARE advocates for a new provincial HIV strategy and better research.
“We have to find the resources to do extra clinics if we need them. When we have people that we know are HIV positive, but are not in care, we have to do whatever it takes to get them into care, he said. “To not do so is to allow transmission to continue and I think we’re missing opportunities right now.”