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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

A Complicated Tragedy

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday September 18, 05:42 pm
Poverty, racism and much more contribute to Saskatchewan’s HIV epidemic

Photo Credit: Festivale

Saskatchewan has the highest HIV rate in Canada (more than double the national average) — and Saskatoon has the highest rate of infection anywhere in the country, responsible for half of the province's new cases annually.

Horrific, right? So why hasn’t the issue drawn the attention or resources it certainly deserves?

According to the latest figures from the provincial Ministry of Health, the annual number of HIV diagnoses in Saskatchewan rose from 40 in 2003 to a peak of 200 in 2009. Although last year's number of newly identified HIV cases was down to 177, that’s still alarmingly high.

The annual Scotiabank AIDS Walk for Life (as well as the Red Ribbon Road initiative), put on by AIDS Saskatoon and the Avenue Community Centre, hopes to raise both awareness and funds to combat the epidemic.

James Dixon, funding and program evaluator at AIDS Saskatoon, says that as tragic as the numbers are, they don't tell the entire story.

“It's actually a lot more complicated than what the figures show,” he says. “HIV is connected with things like mental health, addictions, poverty, homelessness, food and housing insecurity, discrimination, racism, incarceration rates and more. It's a very complicated story.”

It's a sad reality that discrimination and racism still play a large factor in the epidemic, says Dixon.

“Unfortunately, the history of our province — specifically with colonialism and the residential school effect, along with the resulting inter-generational trauma — has basically created and maintained a very vulnerable population,” says Dixon. “And just within that population alone, things like poverty and addition and homeless are reoccurring themes.”

According to the Saskatoon Health Region, in the last year about 75 per cent of those who contracted HIV self-identified as aboriginal, and 67 per cent self-identified as using injection drugs. Around 30 per cent of global HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa are caused by injecting drugs — making that 67 per cent figure in Saskatoon even more staggering.

“A lot of these folks have turned to injection drug use as a means of just getting through their day-to-day lives. Generally, the population that's affected, they're living day-to-day in crisis mode. So if they had resources that they could use, that would eliminate one major element of crisis, and it would make the prevention and managing of HIV a lot easier.”

Saskatchewan's resistance to implementing safe injection sites — medically supervised facilities designed to provide a hygienic and stress-free environment for drug use — has been well-documented. Dr. Johnmark Opondo, deputy medical officer of the Saskatoon Health Region, told CBC back in 2010 that “I don't think that [safe-injection sites] is the relevant response. We need to see what's relevant to the community, and then we need to tailor services based on what we see,” he said.

But Insite, the safe-injection site in Vancouver, has been very successful — and as a result, similar facilities are popping up elsewhere in the country. Public Health officials in Montréal, for example, have announced that four safe-injection sites will be built in that city.

That’s obviously a step forward — but the concept still meets with a lot of resistance due to stereotypes, says Dixon.

“I think a big part of the controversy surrounding safe-injection sites comes from perceptions about additions and the people who use drugs. So, often when you hear about these programs, you hear about enabling 'them' and 'their' problems. People struggling with addictions aren't always seen as people, but as addicts,” he says.

“[But] programs like Insite recognize that intravenous drug use and the factors related to it aren't things that can be solved overnight. I think there are misconceptions about the severity and complexity of addictions and intravenous drug use, and about what is necessary to overcome them. It's these misconceptions that fire up the controversy.”

Unfortunately, this isn't the only misconception about those with HIV. Many of those most at risk are also afraid of the implications of getting help, due to the stigma that surrounds the disease.

“There definitely is [a lot of stigma]: people associate a lot of negative things with HIV,” says Dixon. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, HIV was primarily affecting the gay population, so there's still that stigma that follows it around, that it's a ‘gay disease’ — even though in Saskatchewan, the gay population is one of the least affected by HIV. [Also], people don't seem to understand that addiction is a mental health problem, something that requires support.”

Support for those with HIV in Saskatoon is available. AIDS Saskatoon has a free drop-in centre, with space and information available. They also have three support workers who can provide support one-on-one, in whatever capacity clients may need. Clearly, more could be done — but not without more money, says Dixon.

“There could always be more resources. We’re still seeing these high rates year after year, and awareness is a huge part: some people don't even know that this is happening in our city, that this is something that's affecting people right here in our community,” he says. “Whenever the statistics comes out, it's usually pretty jarring. But I don't know if people want to know.”

In order to bring more awareness to the HIV epidemic, AIDS Saskatoon and the Avenue Community Centre launched the Red Ribbon Road in late August, decorating the 300-block of 20th Street West with red ribbons, symbolizing support for those living with HIV in Saskatchewan. And on Sept. 21st, the Scotiabank AIDS Walk for Life will be taking place to raise funds for additional support — resources which surely can go a long way, Dixon says.

“There are many folks living in Saskatoon with HIV who require support and services to manage the infection, and to live a long and healthy life. HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be, if an HIV-positive person has access to medication, housing, nutrition, health care and other basic needs. But many don’t have these things guaranteed, so having support services available is absolutely necessary.”

 

The Scotiabank AIDS Walk for Life takes place on Sept. 21st, beginning at 9:00 am at the Roxy Theatre (320 20th St.). For more information or to donate, go to aidswalkforlife.ca/saskatoon.htm

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