World AIDS Day: Calls continue for better HIV prevention in N.S.

Dec. 1 marks World AIDS Day, and people around the globe, including Nova Scotia, are commemorating the occasion.

“It’s our annual opportunity to take a moment for those who are impacted by HIV and AIDS worldwide, to reflect on those who are lost, but also to assess where we are in terms of progress made in treatment and prevention,” says Chris Aucoin, AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia’s executive director.

Aucoin says HIV diagnosis rates in Nova Scotia have been “mostly stable” in the province for more than a decade.

“That might sound good on one level, but to me that says we’re not doing enough on the prevention side of things,” Aucoin says.

“Nationally, we’re actually a low incidence area in terms of HIV infection, but it has been an ongoing, persistent situation in the province.”

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Read more: Canada approves 1st HIV self-test to help reduce screening barriers

Each year, Nova Scotia sees on average 16 new HIV diagnoses, and while Aucoin acknowledges that number is low, he says it could be zero.

For example, he says a rapid test that has been available to other Canadians for 15 years hasn’t been funded in Nova Scotia. That same test was approved by federal regulators last month to be the first HIV self-test in Canada. It’s a long-awaited move that experts have called critical to reaching people who don’t know they have the virus.

“Without adequate testing — without easy access to testing — we can’t find those who are undiagnosed, who are the source of most new other infections,” he says, adding an at-home test would be crucial in combatting a virus that is highly stigmatized.

“There are all kinds of social barriers to people accessing testing, so this home test has potential to side step many of those, because people can do it anonymously and once they have the results, follow up as appropriate.”

Click to play video: 'Health Canada has approved a new home HIV test' Health Canada has approved a new home HIV test
Health Canada has approved a new home HIV test – Nov 12, 2020

Aucoin also questions why a drug that can prevent HIV infection altogether hasn’t been made more widely available in Nova Scotia.

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“We’ve been after the province to supplement the cost, bring it down, or to provide it free as many other jurisdictions — including P.E.I. — make it free for high-risk populations to have access to it because they can most benefit from it,” Aucoin says.

Read more: Push continues to bring HIV testing into more Nova Scotia communities

“People’s lives still get massively impacted by an HIV diagnosis, even though they might still have a normal life expectancy — and that’s the new norm now, we have great treatments. However, if we don’t have to have someone get infected and ever have to go on treatment, why would we not want to take advantage of that opportunity? It’s now available to us. We need to buy into it.”

The AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia holds an annual vigil to mark World AIDS Day. This year’s event will be held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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