Saskatchewan reports highest rate of new HIV diagnosis’ in 2022

High HIV rates show need for proactive policy says Saskatchewan Prevention Institute program coordinator

Saskatchewan continues to lead the country in HIV rates, according to data released by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in December.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba were the only provinces to hit double digit HIV rates in 2022. Saskatchewan reported 19 new cases per 100,000 people, while Manitoba reported 13.9 new cases per 100,000 people. The national average was 4.7.

Jasmin Ogren, the sexual and reproductive health program coordinator with the Saskatchewan Prevention Institute, said the results are sad to see.

“Saskatchewan has historically been above the national rate when it comes to HIV and other sexually transmitted blood borne infections as well, but to continue to see our province so much higher than the national rate should definitely sound alarms,” Ogren said. “I think it really highlights the need for us to take action.”

Canada reported 1,833 new HIV diagnosis in 2022, a 24.9 per cent increase over the year before. The data does not include cases diagnosed outside of Canada.

The majority of the new HIV cases were reported in patients between 30 and 39 years of age. For men, male-to-male sexual contact was the number one means of exposure, while heterosexual contact was number one for women.

Ogren said there is still a lack of awareness and education about HIV in Saskatchewan, which makes it harder to stop the spread.

“We really need to be proactive as a province,” she said. “This is a public health crisis that requires a response, so I think in Saskatchewan we need to see a provincial STDI framework or something like that we have everyone working to a common goal to really solve this problem at multiple levels.”

Northern Saskatchewan faces some of the biggest challenges in reducing HIV rates. Data from the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority shows 52 new cases per 100,000 people in member communities in 2022, a number almost three times the provincial rate and 11 times the national average. That’s despite the fact testing numbers in NITHA communities dropped from 4,239 tests in 2021 to 2,031 tests in 2022.

NITHA Medical Health Officer Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka said many people still fear being stigmatized if they test positive for HIV, and that makes it difficult to diagnose cases. He said support networks in the north need to be better funded to help ensure patients are supported, not neglected.

“Each HIV diagnosis has a lot of implications for the family. It has a lot of implications for the community, so support systems that are built around this particular individual at the community level will be very important,” he explained. “If there are investment opportunities, it can be important that the government provide the adequate funding … and sustain them over the long-term.”

In the past year, Ndubuka said NITHA communities have rolled out more and more self-test kits to make HIV testing more accessible. They’ve also started a “test one, test all” initiative where doctors test for multiple STDs, even if they are asked to test for just one.

Ndubuka added that many northern communities have created mobile testing vans and teams to try and become even more accessible. They’ve also started educational awareness media campaigns in English, Cree, and Dene, and began strongly encouraging testing for pregnant mothers.

Ndubuka said it was discouraging to see the decrease in testing numbers in 2022. However, he’s still hopeful for the long-term.

“HIV is a treatable disease,” he said. “Tests are available in the north. We can engage individuals in care and confidentially is assured.”

NITHA is a partnership organization comprised of the Prince Albert Grand Council, Meadow Lake Tribal Council, Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

HIV spreads through unprotected sexual contact, and blood contact such as the sharing of drug using equipment. Pregnant women with HIV may also pass the virus on to their children without proper treatment.

If not treated, HIV can lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). There is no cure for HIV, but medication can treat it.”

@kerr_jas •