AIDS awareness week kicks off in Saskatoon

Click to play video: 'High HIV rates a concern for Saskatchewan health officials' High HIV rates a concern for Saskatchewan health officials
WATCH ABOVE: Health officials remain concerned over the high HIV rates in Saskatchewan as flag raised on HIV awareness week in the province – Nov 27, 2017

The first-ever provincial HIV awareness flag is flying above Saskatoon city hall.

The flag is marked with a tiger lily over Saskatchewan’s green and yellow; the significance of the flower is because one was planted by a person living with HIV outside the AIDS Saskatoon drop-in.

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It’s a rallying symbol for a community looking to eliminate the stigma of living with HIV in the province.

“We’re living long and complete lives just like anyone else here,” Kristen Dunn, a peer support worker at AIDS Saskatoon, said. “There’s no reason that anyone needs to be mistreated because of this diagnosis.”

Monday’s flag raising acted as a kick off to AIDS awareness week, with a series of events and celebrations leading up to world AIDS day on Dec. 1.

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“We want to normalize this experience, we want to make sure that people aren’t left out of the warmth and support they require from family and friends,” Dunn said.

WATCH BELOW: AIDS Saskatoon hosting events for AIDS awareness week

Click to play video: 'AIDS Saskatoon hosting events for AIDS awareness week' AIDS Saskatoon hosting events for AIDS awareness week
AIDS Saskatoon hosting events for AIDS awareness week – Nov 28, 2017

In Saskatoon a vigil will be held, followed by a feast and round-dance at the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre.

“Does Saskatchewan have a problem? I think we do have a problem,” Dr. Johnmark Opondo, deputy medical health officer at the Saskatoon Health Region (SHR), said.

Preliminary data from the Ministry of Health shows there were 170 newly diagnosed HIV cases in 2016, up six per cent over 2015.

Sixty per cent of those new cases self-reported injection drug use as the main cause of exposure to the virus.

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“Our rates look much higher than the Canadian average, but it’s really a reflection of injection drug use and addiction behaviour,” Opondo said. “It follows the very same patterns.”

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There were 45 new cases in Saskatoon, a slight decrease from 2015.

The main focus for the SHR is on prevention and treatment in the hopes the numbers will start to decrease.

“We want to prevent people getting HIV infected in the first place, it’s better than struggling with treatment or with a cure,” Opondo said.

“Being tested for HIV is not just diagnostic to know if you have HIV or not, but if you’re HIV negative, there are supports for you to remain negative; if you’re HIV positive then getting into treatment is really important.”

“As soon as they access medication and have treatment, their viral load is undetectable, the virus won’t be transmitted sexually,” Dunn said.

Seventy-nine per cent of the 170 newly diagnosed cases identify as Indigenous. The major increases were seen in the Prairie North (up 80 per cent), Prince Albert Parkland (up 73 per cent) and Sunrise (up 800 per cent) health regions.

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“They haven’t had access to needle exchange programs and access to clean needles, we’ve unfortunately found high rates of hepatitis C and HIV,” Opondo said.

“Part of our response to HIV really has to support Indigenous communities and really supporting them in a way that is culturally appropriate, sensitive, promoting and affirming.”

The hope for SHR is once the province moves to one amalgamated health region, resources to help lower the numbers in rural areas will be easier to coordinate and move throughout the province.

The Ministry of Health is expected to release a full report on the 2016 HIV/AIDS numbers on Friday, in conjunction with world AIDS day.

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