Representatives from 37 First Nations communities in Saskatchewan gathered on Tuesday to discuss curbing the disproportionate percentage of Indigenous people with HIV/AIDS.
In a province with HIV rates higher than anywhere else in the country, knowing whether you’re positive or negative is the first step, according to organizers of the second annual “Know Your Status” forum in Saskatoon.
Waylon Thomas learned his status seven years ago. “Confusion, anxiety, sad,” he said, describing the moment he found out.
“I’ve learned to cope with it,” Thomas said. “Taking my medications every day.”
Thomas is an example of what the United Nations (UN) is striving toward – he’s someone who’s been tested and is accessing treatment paving the way toward the UN’s goal of 90-90-90.
“I think you have a serious problem with a social determinant of health, access to services, no testing,” UN-AIDS director Michel Sidibe said.
Sidibe spoke at the forum Tuesday.
“We have almost nine times more people infected among Indigenous people than the general population,” he said.
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The Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation is curbing statistics. The reserve has received international recognition for their work combating the spread of HIV/AIDS with community-based testing and treatment.
“We never had in two years now … we had zero infections and there’s testing and we had no new cases,” Chief Lary Ahenakew said.
A few years ago anyone on the reserve who needed testing or treatment had to travel elsewhere. All these services are now available within the community.
Ahenakew said new cases have halted because of improved access.
Sidibe’s vision is 90-90-90; whereby 90 per cent of people living with HIV know their status, 90 per cent of people who know their status are accessing treatment, and 90 per cent of people on treatment have a suppressed viral load meaning the cannot transmit the virus.
“Each person who lives with HIV needs to be on lifetime medication and so there’s a cost for that medication and that is funded either by non-insured health benefits or the provincial drug plan,” Denise Werker, Saskatchewan’s deputy chief medical health officer, said.
It is estimated lifetime treatment can cost upwards of $1 million per person.
“Antivirals I take, I take them every day. My viral load is undetectable,” Thomas said, meaning the spread of the virus, stops with him.