A study released Thursday morning in Amsterdam on HIV/AIDS in Saskatchewan is finally providing an explanation to front-line workers on what has been happening to patients in recent years.
The study, prepared by researchers at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Simon Fraser University, concludes mutated strains of the virus are accelerating illness in Saskatchewan’s Indigenous people — adapting to their immune systems to become more resistant.
“It helps to give a biological explanation for some of the challenging sort of cases we’ve seen on the ground,” said Dr. Alex Wong, an HIV/AIDS specialist with the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
He noted normally it takes a patient five to 10 years between contraction of HIV and having their immune system degraded to the point where they’re prone to illness — the “AIDS” stage.
However, in recent years there have been cases where the development of AIDS has only taken six months to two years.
“It’s a real impetus for us to recognize that we need to continue to work very aggressively to address all stages of the HIV cascade in the province,” Wong said.
The new findings are also seen as a confirmation to advocates in Saskatchewan.
AIDS Saskatoon has been witnessing accelerated cases for several years.
“It explains a lot,” said Sarah Fang, education and prevention director.
“It’s much, much quicker here in Saskatchewan and this research shows why that’s happening.”
She said the study’s findings that drugs can still be used to control HIV is a positive for the organization, and their strategy of encouraging testing and treatment won’t change.
However, there’s hope the research will lead to more HIV/AIDS funding in Saskatchewan.
Fang said AIDS Saskatoon and others often rely on federal grants for their operating costs, and the funding often fluctuates depending on HIV/AIDS trends in larger provinces like B.C. and Ontario.
“This research is showing that what we have in Saskatchewan is a unique situation,” she said.
“Our funding should reflect that, so that we have the resources we need in order to fight against HIV effectively.”
Saskatchewan has one of the highest HIV rates in North America, and sits at more than ten times the Canadian national average. Around 80 per cent of people with HIV in the province are Indigenous.
Regina advocacy groups calls for more prevention
In the face of a more aggressive strain of HIV in Saskatchewan, local advocates are hoping people take note.
Vidya Reddy, education and information specialist with AIDS Program South Saskatchewan (APSS), explained 60 per cent of people diagnosed with HIV in the province get it through injection drug use.
“This again emphasizes the importance of primary prevention, awareness, education to interrupt the chain of transmission,” Reddy said.
He noted the importance of needle exchange programs operating within the city as well as in other areas, such as Kamsack. He said the APSS needle exchange program alone distributes 1.4 million needles each year, but that’s not enough.
“Absolutely, safe injection sites are a must, not only to prevent the spread of HIV, but other blood-born communicable diseases as well, and also the crisis that we’re seeing with overdose deaths,” Reddy commented.
He said the stigma and discrimination against injection drug use and HIV itself is preventing people from accessing safe supplies and from getting tested, which could help them access treatment and curb the transmission of the virus.
Reddy added he hopes the news about the more aggressive strain of HIV raises awareness of the disease, and gets more people to pay attention.
“About the need to get tested, about the need to use safe injection supplies, about the need to practice safe sex, use condoms and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C as well, or any other blood-born sexually-transmitted infections,” he said.
—With files from the Canadian Press and 980 CJME’s Adriana Christianson.