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HIV ‘outbreak’ in N.S. continues to rise as awareness week kicks off

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WATCH: Public health officials are warning people of an on-going outbreak of HIV in the province. As Alexa MacLean reports, the increase in cases was initially flagged this summer and the numbers are still climbing – Nov 29, 2018

An HIV “outbreak” in Nova Scotia is continuing to increase and Public Health officials say they now have data pointing to what’s causing the surge in cases.

“In looking at the data since July what we found is that the largest number of increases in cases are people who are reporting using injection drugs as their risk factor and they are predominately located in the Halifax area,” Dr. Trevor Arnason said, a public health physician.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia experiencing ‘significant increase’ in newly-diagnosed HIV cases

The number of confirmed HIV cases in the province currently sits at 25, up from 16 this past summer.

The significant increase has triggered an urgency to inform the general public, especially populations who are at higher risk of contracting HIV, about the rising number of confirmed cases.

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“It’s [HIV] a sexually transmitted and/or blood-borne infection. We see the highest rates in people who report men who have sex with men as their risk factor but this year we’re seeing people who use injection drugs as a risk factor and that’s primarily through the bloodroot of blood through shared needles or shared injection equipment that results in the transmission of HIV,” Dr. Arnason said.

Calls to further invest in HIV prevention drug 

The rising number of HIV cases has resurfaced the call for the province to provide a drug that is “highly effective” at preventing HIV free of cost to those who are at risk of contracting the infection.

The drug is called HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis [PrEP] and in provinces like British Columbia, it is provided free of charge to people who qualify through physician recommendations.

“This pill could really benefit anybody that might be at risk for HIV. While these other jurisdictions are seeing up to a 50 percent reduction, we’re on track to see a 60 per cent increase this year and what that ends up meaning is we’re paying way more in treatments than we would if we had simply put prevention in place,” Matthew Number said, an assistant professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University and chair of Nova Scotia PrEP Action Committee.

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Since the outbreak was flagged by Public Health in July, the provincial government has made PrEP part of the Nova Scotia Formulary, meaning those who qualify for the Nova Scotia Pharmacare program can receive coverage for the drug.

“This is the first time [PrEP]’s been made available in Nova Scotia so the work is on-going to assess what other steps need to be taken,” provincial Health Minister Randy Delorey said.

Numer argues not everyone qualifies for the Nova Scotia Pharmacare program, leaving those who are vulnerable to HIV even more susceptible to contracting the infection.

“If we want to have any impact on HIV, we need to start with PrEP and we need to do education and awareness,” he said.

WATCH: Ending the stigma of HIV and AIDS

Click to play video: 'Ending the stigma of HIV and AIDS' Ending the stigma of HIV and AIDS
Ending the stigma of HIV and AIDS – Nov 17, 2018

Harm reduction investments

This past year, the province has made significant investments in harm reduction strategies.

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Minister Delorey says no decision has been made at this point on providing universal access to PrEP but that conversations are on-going with those on the frontlines of harm reduction to see how the government can improve the response to the HIV outbreak.

“Certainly, it’s a concern to see a spike in this current year but we’re getting the data, we have to understand the data and the circumstances and the populations being impacted so we can identify what steps need to be taken,” Minister Delorey said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Arnason is urging people to get tested for HIV.

“In this current outbreak PrEP is one thing we’re looking at getting better access to but we have to keep in mind that many people are unaware of their diagnosis. So, people knowing their status and getting tested I think will be a very important piece for the current outbreak in Halifax,” he said.

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