National HIV Testing Day looks to break down barriers

With easier access and improved treatment, healthcare options for AIDS and HIV patients are getting better, but healthcare workers say there are still challenges when it comes to testing.

That’s something the Saskatchewan Health Authority and their community partners where trying to address with a National HIV Testing Day event held at Access Place.

The goal is to help encourage people to get tested, while also giving them the information needed to make informed healthcare decisions.

“We don’t want to just tell people what they need,” Access Place and Outreach Services nurse manager Michelle Herbst Suter said. “We want to offer them the information, inform them of what is available and then be a support while they choose.”

Healthcare workers say science has come a long way since the ‘80s and ‘90s, especially when it comes to AIDS and HIV treatment. However, Herbst Suter and others at Thursday’s event say too many at-risk individuals decline to get tested. She’s worried they don’t feel comfortable asking for help.

“(It’s) the judgment that comes along with it,” she explained. “How did you contract HIV? There are people who perceive that they are being judged, and that, in the past, may have prevented them from seeking care or seeking their diagnosis.”

However, public opinion isn’t the only concern. There are also misconceptions about what treatments are needed and how much they cost.

The 2018-19 provincial budget earmarked $600,000 to provide free medication for eligible patients. The new coverage came into effect on April 11, 2018, but support workers say not everyone knows about it.

“A lot of people do think you have to pay for it,” said Fred Simpson, a support worker with AIDS Saskatoon. “Sometimes that can be a barrier, especially for the northern communities.”

“You can take one pill a day and you can lead that healthy lifestyle,” Simpson added. “(Patients) sometimes don’t know because they don’t understand. When they get that diagnosis of HIV, they think, ‘my life is over.’”

While healthcare and support workers were busy encouraging people to get tested on Thursday, they stressed that any day is a good day for testing.

Despite the challenges associated with testing, both Herbst Suter and Simpson are optimistic about the future. Events like National HIV Testing Day have generated a positive response in the community. Now it’s just a matter of keeping that momentum going.

“The atmosphere has definitely changed,” Simpson said. “We’re veering in a good direction.”