Saskatchewan government apologizes after World AIDS Day tweet draws ire

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WATCH: The Saskatchewan government is apologizing for a tweet meant to mark World AIDS Day that many say is homophobic – Dec 2, 2020

The province is apologizing after its World AIDS Day social media post featuring a picture of two men —their foreheads touching, one’s arm resting on the other’s shoulder — drew ire.

“HIV is on the rise in Saskatchewan. It’s treatable. Get tested,” said the text over the picture of the men.

The online response to the post, which went up Tuesday, was swift.

“What it did to me though was make me sad,” said Twitter user Kyle Gunderson. “Seeing this as being the right message to send on #WorldAIDSDay after going through some sort of vetting process reminds me I may never be allowed to donate blood despite being monogamous for 3 years… because I’m ‘high risk.'”

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The government removed the post, putting an apology in its place Wednesday morning and acknowledged its “social media pages used a photo that stigmatized HIV/AIDS and those that live with the disease.”

Saskatchewan’s health ministry is reviewing the situation, Health Minister Paul Merriman said Wednesday afternoon.

“It was just the wrong image,” he said. “It does stigmatize to a certain extent, but I really feel that HIV and AIDS cuts across all demographics, all sexual orientations, and again, it was disappointing to see that.”

Read more: Mutated strains of HIV in Sask. causing AIDS-related illnesses quicker, study finds

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OUTSaskatoon’s co-interim executive director, Jack Saddleback, agrees that it was disappointing to see, especially since he said his organization has worked with the government to educate against prejudice.

“With the Government of Saskatchewan putting out a tone-deaf aspect such as this tweet, it just goes to show that we still need to be out there doing this education,” Saddleback said.

“To think that the idea of what HIV is and who it impacts and how there’s the pigeon-holing of just it being the queer community is unfactual.”

In Saskatchewan — according to the government’s own data — the primary risk factor among newly diagnosed people is (and has consistently been) intravenous drug use. That’s followed by unprotected heterosexual sex and then men who have sex with men.

The data shows 199 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in the province last year — a rate higher than it’s been any other year this past decade, the data shows.

Saskatchewan’s per capita infection rate has been higher than in any other provincial or territorial jurisdiction in the country for years now. Compared with the most recent national data available from 2018, it’s nearly two and a half times the national average.

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

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Amanda Sauer, AIDS Programs South Saskatchewan’s education co-ordinator, was stunned by the depiction, given how HIV/AIDS has been spreading in the province.

“Sixty-seven percent of HIV infection rates in Saskatchewan are due to the sharing of injection substance equipment, so whether that be needles, cookers, any kinds of other equipment,” Sauer noted. “Actually, heterosexual sex is higher for HIV transmission rates here in Saskatchewan than men having sex with men.”

Sauer added that Saskatchewan’s diagnoses among men having sex with men is one of the lowest.

“In terms of HIV, that’s not what the Saskatchewan picture looks like. We look like substance use disorder and so when we want to address that, we need to be addressing substance use disorder,” she said.

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