World AIDS Day a reminder of local struggle

Matt Gardner
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Nations around the globe recognize Dec. 1 each year as World AIDS Day. While raising awareness of the disease on a global scale, it also highlights problems closer to home.

An oversized ribbon in the window of the 601 North Outreach Centre promotes this year’s AIDS Awareness Week, which started Nov. 24 and culminates with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

In recent years, Prince Albert has faced a growing struggle against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. While in 2009 the city experienced 24 new cases of HIV infection, by 2011 the number of new cases that year had more than doubled to 55.

Comparisons to other regions make clear the extent of the problem. The HIV infection rate for Saskatchewan is twice the national average at 18-20 cases per 100,000 residents – the worst figures for any province. But the infection rate inside the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region (PAPHR) almost doubles that high provincial average with 34 cases per 100,000 people.

Why is the city’s HIV infection rate so high? PAPHR medical health officer Dr. Khami Chokani has a few answers.

“One is we’ve got a smaller population,” he said. “Two is that predominantly, our HIV cases have been seen in those who use intravenous (IV) drugs, and unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in those who not only use intravenous drugs but also those who have heterosexual events … That is what we’ve noticed over the last two years.”

Family Futures outreach program co-ordinator Jolene Suri has helped many Prince Albert residents who are HIV-positive or suffer from AIDS. She confirms that by far, the most significant factor for new infections in P.A. is intravenous drug use.

“I’ve been in this field since 2003,” Suri said. “And I have never met one person with HIV who got it from something other than with IV/drug use.”

While drugs appear to be the most significant aggravating factor, many health workers argue that high rates of HIV infection and drug use cannot be separated from other social problems, but rather tend to be directly linked to them.

Donna Lerat, co-ordinator of HIV health promotion at the Prince Albert Métis Women’s Association, pointed out that intravenous drug use or addiction does not occur in a vacuum.

“There’s much more to drug use,” she said. “It’s not just somebody when they’re tiny saying, ‘Boy, I want to be an addict when I grow up.’ It’s somebody who has family, but has been faced with true trauma.”

I’ve been in this field since 2003, and I have never met one person with HIV who got it from something other than with IV/drug use. Jolene Suri

Lerat said many residents in Saskatchewan struggle with poverty and homelessness. Afflicted individuals often develop drug habits in order to cope, and the use of intravenous drugs can lead to HIV infection.

In that sense, Lerat pointing to the role of historical discrimination and state oppression in driving more Aboriginal residents to drug use.

“It’s much more than the addiction itself. That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “It’s sexual abuse. It’s displacement, residential school, colonization … prejudice, discrimination, stigma. This is large in Prince Albert -- let’s get real. Until we put that on the table, we’ll never get beyond when we’re only going to have band-aid solutions continued.”

Accordingly, Suri and Lerat suggest that any proposal by the city to tackle the high HIV infection rate must be a comprehensive plan that addresses different social problems.

“It has to include social and addiction,” Suri said. “To just fight HIV alone, you’re going to get nowhere, because it’s from the social and substance abuse problems why it’s there to begin with.”

Lerat argued for more educational initiatives, addiction programs, detox beds and even higher-quality condoms for distribution at local clinics and health centres.

Dr. Chokani praised the existing support network for HIV and AIDS in Prince Albert.

“It’s great,” he said. “Is there room for expansion? Yes, most definitely. That is unspoken. It’s like saying whether we have enough hospital beds. We can go to the extent whereby we have one hospital bed for every single person who lives in P.A. … That’s an ideal situation. It can’t happen, but we can get as close as possible.”

But Lerat firmly believes that Prince Albert requires more resources in order to properly tackle the problem.

“You have to have programs where people can go and get recovery or seek other avenues for health,” she said.

Organizations: Prince Albert

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, P.A., Prince Albert Métis Women

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