HIV could become more common as federal funding shifts away from health organizations: advocates

Photo shows a scanning electron micrograph of multiple round bumps of the HIV-1 virus on a cell surface.
Photo shows a scanning electron micrograph of multiple round bumps of the HIV-1 virus on a cell surface. Cynthia Goldsmith/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP

The head of the Canadian AIDS Society fears HIV rates will continue to rise because of a shift in federal funding towards prevention instead of treatment and support.

Gary Lacasse said in a recent interview that HIV rates in Canada went up by 11 per cent in 2016 – the most recent available data. That same year, the federal government started to shift its funding focus.

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“The issue is people who have HIV are the ones infecting other people who are not HIV positive,” Lacasse said.

“So if you don’t have care and support for people who are living with HIV who are in priority pockets, for sure they’re retransmitting HIV. The science is there.”

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One of the 44 organizations that had its funding disappear was AIDS Saskatoon. Executive director Jason Mercredi said the organization had received around $296,000 annually which helped fund education initiatives, outreach in northern Saskatchewan and community education.

HIV rates for 2016 in Saskatchewan were more than 10 times the national average in some areas. Nearly 80 per cent of people with HIV in the province are Indigenous.

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Mercredi said the loss of federal funding forced him to close down operations in La Ronge, Sask., where resource material was available in Cree and Dene. Peer support in that part of the province also helped break down stigma.

He said he has only three case workers to deal with 700 people, while another outreach team deals with 1,000 families.

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“Unless the feds step up with a huge cash influx for this, we’re not going to get ahead of this any time soon,” Mercredi said.

Mercredi said he was told by Ottawa that AIDS Saskatoon didn’t qualify for the government’s Community Action Fund because priorities were shifting. He said he thought his organization met the shifting priorities, but Ottawa didn’t see it that way.

AIDS Saskatoon did recently find out that it will receive $125,000 through a harm reduction fund. That funding goes until March 2020 and will be used for community development work in the Prince Albert region and some education in northern communities.

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The federal government said in a statement the total amount of funding for community-based organizations to address rates of sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections has not changed.

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“The new Community Action Fund launched in 2017 with an open and competitive solicitation process based on priorities for funding that were identified in consultation with provinces and territories and a wide-range of stakeholders including people with lived experience, researchers and community-based organizations,” Health Canada spokeswoman Rebecca Purdy said.

It also said that it’s not unusual for rates to fluctuate from year to year and that in 2016, an increased rate of HIV diagnosis is in part due to changes in reporting practices in Quebec.

“The greater concern is when we begin to see a trend of increasing rates over a longer period of time, and it’s too early to know if that’s the case,” Purdy said.

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AIDS Vancouver, the oldest AIDS service organization in Canada, had been receiving funds from the federal government for more than 20 years until it got its $150,000 annual funds eliminated.

Executive director Brian Chittock said that AIDS Vancouver was able to raise about $100,000 from other sources and that the federal cuts haven’t yet dramatically affected the organization.

“I’d say that the biggest hurt is that we don’t know in terms of continuing funding,” said Ilm Kassam, the organization’s program manager and clinical supervisor.

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“Every year it becomes a challenge whether we’re able to continue these positions and these programs that we find that are vital for the community.”

The AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia had also been supported by Ottawa for more than 20 years, but found out last October that its $250,000 annual funding would be stopped. The organization has since moved to a smaller space and cut one position.

“The fewer resources we have, the less we can do for people that need our support,” Executive director Dena Simon said.

Nova Scotia has already recorded approximately 16 new cases of HIV in the first six months of 2018, which is a number usually seen over the course of a year.

Lacasse suspects that the overall HIV numbers in 2017 will come out higher than 2016. He hopes the federal funding will return.

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“Each time we avoid a HIV transmission, we save over the lifetime of that person, $1.3 million,” Lacasse said. “The economics are there. The government is not listening.”

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