Canadian researchers gather to tackle Saskatchewan’s HIV crisis

The forum was hosted by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.

As the province’s HIV rate continues to rise, especially in the Indigenous community, researchers and stakeholders gathered at the University of Saskatchewan on Friday to try and find a Saskatchewan solution to address the crisis.

The event, called Indigenous Health: The Mysteries and Myths of the HIV Crisis in Saskatchewan, was co-hosted by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

“We have a crisis here in Saskatchewan and we have the expertise here in Saskatchewan to solve some of our issues,” SHRF CEO Patrick Odnokon said. “The whole idea here is to bring the research community together with community stakeholders, and with government, to essentially talk about the situation and to find strategies to see where we can take this.”

READ MORE: High HIV rates a concern for Saskatchewan health officials

Nearly 150 people from various stakeholder groups heard from multiple keynote speakers at the frontline of the issue.

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“Bringing researchers and community stakeholders together is an important first step,” Odnokon said.

Dr. Carrie Bourassa, chair of Indigenous and Northern Health and the Health Science North Research Institute, was one of those keynote speakers. Bourassa grew up in Treaty 4 territory in the Regina area and has been working in the field of Indigenous health for over 13 years.

While she sees the HIV situation in Saskatchewan as an issue, she prefers not to call it a crisis.

“I don’t like to use that word, because I think it stigmatizes people and for Indigenous people in Canada in general,” Bourassa said. “There’s really a lot of deficit research and stigmatization going on and what we want to do is try and focus on assets and our resilience and the strengths that we have in our communities to try and address multiple issues, but mostly HIV here in Saskatchewan.”

In 2016, the HIV diagnosis rate among First Nations communities in Saskatchewan was 42.5 per 100,000.  Twenty-nine per cent of those cases were amongst people aged 30 to 39; the impact is greater on Indigenous women.

Fifty per cent of cases reported exposure to injection drug use, a statistic Bourassa believes scratches the surface of the overall issue.

“HIV is really about inter-generational trauma, impacts of colonization, poverty, marginalization, lack of adequate housing; it is really about addressing those root issues,” she said. “It’s about digging deep, digging beyond the disease, digging beyond the infection.”

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In comparison, the 2016 HIV diagnosis rate for the rest of Saskatchewan was 14.5 cases per 100,000.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan has highest HIV rate in country: health department

“We have to listen to the people that are experiencing it every day and we have to translate that into the action,” Bourassa said. “So we have the right people here to create that action plan that I believe we can address the issue.”

In the 2018-19 budget, an additional $600,000 was allocated towards providing universal coverage of HIV medication. Previously, the province covered 91 per cent of HIV medications.

“Our government has already taken some action in this previous budget on HIV and medication so we appreciate that, but there’s always more we can do at the community level,” Odnokon said.

Participants in the day-and-a-half forum also took part in round-table discussions, question and answer periods, and open dialogue to entice brainstorming to develop next steps.

“I really hope we can take some of the great research that’s being done and translate it to policy and services, and we have the right people in the room to do that,” Bourassa said.

SHRF is a provincial agency that collaborates with partners in Saskatchewan’s health research community to focus on needs to help further encourage local research.


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