March 10, 2015 1:21 pm
Updated: March 10, 2015 1:45 pm

Dealing with Saskatchewan’s high HIV rates

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Watch above: Dr. Ryan Meili, co-director of S.H.A.R.E., addresses the high rate of new HIV infections in Saskatchewan and what came out of a recent conference that was brainstorming solutions. 

SASKATOON – Saskatchewan continues to lead the country in new cases HIV, with rates twice the national average.

“It’s deeply frustrating,” stated Dr. Ryan Meili.

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Meili is a co-director of the Saskatchewan HIV/AIDS Research Endeavour (S.H.A.R.E.), who says that although the progress has been made in bringing the rates down from three times the national average to double, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

“When you have a problem that big there are lots of different elements. I think the primary thing we need is to recognize that we still have that problem.”

Many of those affected by HIV in Saskatchewan live in communities with little access to health resources, and efforts to diagnose and manage the illness are hindered by a lack of awareness.

Cathy Johnson, education and prevention coordinator at AIDS Saskatoon, sees how social stigma and discrimination still hinder education surrounding HIV today, saying how “surprising with HIV having been around since the 1980’s that the stigma still exists today.”

“A lot of it is based on fear.”

Johnson does presentations on HIV and AIDS prevention in Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan, and has seen misconceptions ranging from believing the virus is transmitted through saliva, a fear of breathing the same air as someone who is HIV positive and those who avoid information sessions to keep from being associated with the disease.

Those living with HIV in Saskatchewan may also run into financial issues with medical coverage. Unlike other provinces, antiretroviral medications are not fully covered.

One of the experts at last week at the prairie benchmark meeting was Dr. Julio Montaner, who was one of the global leaders in getting the United Nations to adopt 90-90-90, an ambitious treatment target to help end the AIDS epidemic.

90-90-90 outlines global targets to control HIV, and states that by the year 2020:

  • 90 per cent of all people living with HIV will know their status;
  • 90 per cent of all people diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy; and
  • 90 per cent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression

READ MORE: B.C.’s Julio Montaner, Wally Buono named to Order of Canada

Meili illustrates how viral suppression is one of the most important issues.

“HIV is a chronic disease but it’s also an infectious disease. So the sooner you get people on treatment and get that viral load down to where they can’t infect anyone else, the fewer new cases you get. And that’s the biggest challenge, is keeping minimizing the new cases.”

“It seems so unfair,” stresses Meili.

“These are people who have already so often had so many troubles in their lives. If you look at social factors, income and education, the majority of the people who end up with HIV have been marginalized in many different ways, this is just one more hit against their lives.”

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