Vancouver Sun

High HIV rates threaten first nations

‘It’s a huge health concern that Canadians need to open their eyes and see. That so many people could be wiped out is not off the mark,’ CEO of Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network says — and it’s not exclusive to Saskatchew­an

- BY ANGELA HILL

PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. — A Saskatchew­an medical health officer is warning that HIV could kill up to 30 per cent of the province’s aboriginal population over the next five to 10 years.

“Over the past five years, you have seen the rates stabilize in sub-Saharan Africa. … It has done the killing and now it has stabilized. That was the bubble bursting,” said Dr. Khami Chokani, the medical health officer for the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region.

Chokani has worked in countries across southern Africa.

“If you think decimating the African population was bad … HIV in this province will kill 15 to 30 per cent [of the aboriginal population]. Not all at one time, but over a five-to 10-year period.”

There are 141,890 first nations people in Saskatchew­an, according to the latest statistics. If Chokani’s worst-case scenario comes to pass, that would equate to roughly 42,500 deaths.

Saskatchew­an’s HIV rates are causing concern throughout the medical community, eliciting comparison­s with developing nations.There were a total of 174 cases of HIV in the province in 2008, a threefold increase from 2004, according to data released by Saskatchew­an Health. Of those 174, more than 100 victims were aboriginal.

Aboriginal people are the largest group affected, and intravenou­s-drug users sharing needles is the main way HIV is transmitte­d in the province. Young aboriginal women are of increasing concern.

“In the public-health sector, this is having a considerab­le effect, as these increases are appearing primarily in the young females, pregnant women and newborn babies,” Chokani said.

Dr. Moira McKinnon, Saskatchew­an’s chief medical health officer, said the current situation is becoming “urgent” and it is escalating.

“There are babies being born with HIV, and that’s completely avoidable. We know that young girls are getting infected and they are getting sick very quickly, and all of this is avoidable, if we get onto it,” she said.

Stephen Lewis, a professor in global health at McMaster University, said he can’t understand how babies are born with HIV in North America.

“Some of the double standards are terribly worrisome … There is no excuse whatsoever in Canada for having a double standard [between] major hospitals or pediatric centres in the south, and what happens in aboriginal communitie­s in the North,” he said from his office in Toronto.

“It’s just inexcusabl­e. It’s indefensib­le, it’s unconscion­able, that aboriginal babies should be born HIV-positive when it’s not necessary.”

Lewis said that, during his tenure as the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, he saw that treatment for an HIV-positive woman who’s carrying a child or caring for a baby could reduce mother-to-child transmissi­on by almost 99 per cent.

The head of an organizati­on that deals with AIDS in the aboriginal population said the frightenin­g prediction for Saskatchew­an does not seem like an exaggerati­on.

“I don’t think that number [30 per cent] is much out of line,” said Ken Clement, CEO of the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network. “It’s a huge health con- cern that Canadians need to open their eyes and see. That so many people could be wiped out is not off the mark.”

He said the problem is not exclusive to Saskatchew­an, and the disease is spreading, mostly among youth in every province who are moving into the cities from their rural communitie­s.

“We have young people at an earlier age using drugs, and they get caught up in drugs or promiscuit­y and with a lack of education, so all those things contribute to this growing concern, not only in Saskatchew­an, but across the country.

“The infection rates are on the rise in all provinces,” he said.

He said, for example, 18 per cent of aboriginal youth in Prince George have HIV because they are sharing needles or getting into prostituti­on.

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