Sask. HIV rates up slightly

The Prince Albert Parkland Health Region main office. Herald File Photo

Saskatchewan saw a small increase in the number of HIV diagnoses last year — even though rates fell in most areas — because the number of cases in Saskatoon doubled.

According to the 2017 HIV prevention and control report, there were 177 new cases in Saskatchewan last year, as compared to 170 the year before. The data, broken down amongst the province’s former health regions, shows that in most areas, the number of new cases remained the same or fell slightly.

The data was published by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health in late summer. World AIDS Day is celebrated annually on Dec. 1, and HIV/AIDS awareness week began on Nov. 24. Testing and information sessions have been held across the former Prince Albert Parkland Health Region this week, a march was led Monday to Access Place, and a Bannock and stew meal is planned for today from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the Gate.

The report details five regions, Regina Qu’Appelle, Saskatoon, Prince Albert Parkland, the three Northern Health Regions, Prairie North, and “All other.”

All other is collapsed due to small numbers those regions saw a combined nine new cases in 2017, down from 22 the year prior.

In Prince Albert Parkland, 55 new cases were reported in 2017, down one from the year prior. The northern health regions saw two fewer cases in 2017 than in 2016.

The biggest jump was in Saskatoon. In 2016, the former Saskatoon Health Region had 45 new diagnoses of HIV. In 2017, that number jumped to 71.

That means Saskatoon had the most new cases in 2017, surpassing Prince Albert Parkland, which had the dubious distinction of most new cases in 2016.

The 177 new cases in 2017 are 11 above the ten-year average of 166 cases.

The number of people newly diagnosed with HIV had been trending downward from 2009, when it hit a high of 200, to 2014’s 112 new cases. However, since then, the trend has been more cases of the virus, not less.

According to the Ministry of Health’s report, the spike in 2009 and increases in the past few years may be related in part “to enhanced efforts to find people who may have been infected for a number of years but not been tested.” Those efforts include public education, which the province says has resulted in people who had contact with identified HIV cases coming forward.

Saskatchewan’s HIV rate remains more than double the national number. While the 2017 HIV rate wasn’t available, in 2016 it was 6.4 diagnoses per 100,000 population. Saskatchewan’s rate, as of 2017, is 15.1.

Despite having fewer cases, the former Prince Albert Parkland Health Region does have the highest rate of HIV, with 66.6 new cases per 100,000 population. Northern Saskatchewan is second with a rate of 27.4, and Saskatoon third with a rate of 19.7.

HIV is more prevalent in men, though the number of new cases increases with age, whereas with women, the number of new cases decreases with age. While there were newborns delivered to HIV positive mothers, there haven’t been any cases of newborns infected with HIV since 2015, and there have only been two cases of children aged 14 and under (not including newborns) diagnosed with HIV since 2014.

The most common risk factor for acquiring HIV in 2017 was injection drug use, which accounted for two-thirds of all new cases. Heterosexual transmission was the second most common, with one-fifth of all cases, followed by men having sex with men at eight percent, no identified risk at three per cent, and other exposure at two per cent.

Almost four-in-five new diagnoses were of someone who had self-declared Indigenous ethnicity.

According to a Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) media release, one in five people who are HIV positive are unaware of their status. It is estimated that these 20 per cent of undiagnosed people are responsible for more than 50 per cent of all new HIV infections.

“HIV testing is essential for expanding treatment and ensuring that all people living with HIV can lead healthy and productive lives,” said Dr. Johnmark Opondo, Medical Health Officer for the SHA.

“We want people to feel comfortable asking about testing in their local health care facility or with their health care provider. An HIV test should be as routine as the blood work you get done at your annual physical. HIV testing is a crucial step to empowering people to make healthy choices about HIV prevention, so they can protect themselves and their loved ones.”

HIV treatment has changed dramatically over the years, with treatment improving and side effects have lessened. If someone is treated properly, their chances of passing on HIV can be greatly reduced.

“Treatment during pregnancy can decrease the chances of transmission to the baby to less than one per cent, and someone living with HIV can have nearly the same life expectancy as someone that is not living with HIV,” the SHA said. “All of these advancements have helped in the fight the stigma associated with HIV.”