‘We can’t be scared to talk about it’

Métis Women’s Association looking to kickstart conversation on HIV

A Prince Albert women’s group has started a community outreach effort to improve the quality of life and reduce the stigma for those living with or at-risk of HIV.

It’s called HIV Health Promotion, and it’s an initiative launched by the Prince Albert Métis Women’s Association with funding assistance from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Shauna-Rae Brahniuk, the women’s association community health educator, said HIV is a major issue in Saskatchewan, where new cases are almost triple the national average. The goal is to get the lines of communication open with other local patients and community groups to find ways to get more people tested and into treatment.

“There are many, many things that can be done to prevent (the spread of HIV) and many, many things that can be done to actually get a grasp on this,” Brahniuk said. “We just actually have to talk about it. We can’t be scared to talk about it.”

After five consecutive years in decline, the number of new HIV cases in Saskatchewan rose by six per cent in 2016. The numbers were particularly bad in the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region, which saw a 73 per cent increase. The number was even higher in Northern Saskatchewan, with some areas seeing increases as high as 80 per cent.

With the numbers clearly on the rise, Brahniuk is worried the stigma surrounding HIV is hindering community groups and health professionals from addressing the problem. Prince Albert already has a number of organizations and resources to address the problem, like the Access Plane Sexual Health Clinic. However, the big concern is that too many at-risk Prince Albert residents are too scared to seek help, or even ask questions about the disease. She said even the term HIV can be scary.

“Just wanting to get information about it and going into the clinics, it’s almost like now, just because they asked about HIV, they’ve perceived to have HIV,” she said. “Not only are they perceived to have HIV, they’re also perceived (or) presumed to have some sort of dirty lifestyle attached behind it.”

With that in mind, Brahniuk and the Prince Albert Métis Women’s Association got the ball rolling on HIV Health Promotion back in January. Originally, the group focused on promoting preventative measures like safe sex or harm reduction. However, she said that approach wasn’t as effective as they’d hoped.

Since then, the organization has been reaching out to health professionals, residents living with HIV and resident at-risk for HIV to help identify what’s working, what isn’t and where the gaps are. They also plan on doing some street outreach in Prince Albert, as well as holding events on June 27 as part of a campaign to increase public knowledge.
Brahniuk said it will take at least a year or two just to get the word out, so the results won’t come quickly. Still, she’s optimistic Prince Albert residents will take the discussion seriously, which hopefully will lead to greater testing, better treatment and more support and understanding for HIV patients.

“We know that there is a problem within Prince Albert,” she said. “We’re just a little bit leery on taking the steps to face this epidemic, and the way we face this epidemic is by actually gathering knowledge and treating everybody fairly.”