Current Problems

Health (18-24)

Indigenous group seeks funding for HIV crisis

April 16, 2024

Toronto Star: A national organization will find out in Tuesday’s budget if the federal government will fund a multimillion dollar Indigenous-led strategy that could help slow the staggering rise of new HIV cases, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases, which are worryingly high in the Prairies.

“If you look at the state of the epidemics in our communities around HIV, syphilis, sexually transmitted blood borne infections, TB — COVID has definitely helped increase numbers in all of these areas,” said Margaret Kisikaw Piyesis, the CEO for Communities, Alliances and Networks, the nonprofit that has asked for the funding. “We’re really looking at solutions. And how can we further the federal government to be responsible for supporting Indigenous health.”

Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada found that Saskatchewan and Manitoba had the highest rate of newly diagnosed HIV cases in 2022 — 19 and 13.9 per 100,000 population respectively, compared to the national rate of 4.7.

The crisis isn’t confined to Indigenous populations.

But “many of the new, and rising cases, are in the provinces with high concentrations of Indigenous people in Saskatchewan, in Manitoba,” said Piyesis, whose organization was formerly known as the Canadian Aboriginals AIDS Network. “This is data that’s released by the government. They’re the ones that can paint the picture very well.”

The organization would use the funding over two years to develop strategies with its partner agencies to help Indigenous people across Canada get diagnosed, treated and cared for.

The request is coming at a time when syphilis is rising in tandem with HIV in Saskatchewan.

Syphilis infections increased by more than 1,700 per cent in the province from 2017 to 2022, according to data from Public Health Saskatchewan, said Dr. Rupesh Chawla, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital in Saskatoon.

Another alarming change is that women now account for more than half of the cases, a departure from 2017 to 2022 when 92 per cent of new cases were in males, mostly the result of men having sex with men.

Syphilis, which is a sexually transmitted disease, can be passed to the fetus when a mother is infected.

In Saskatchewan, infections have led to an unprecedented number of stillbirths or babies born with syphilis, which can cause bone defects later in life, because the mothers aren’t getting treated for the infection.

From 2018 to 2023, there were 68 cases of babies born with congenital syphilis and nine stillbirths in Saskatchewan. Nearly 70 per cent of the mothers in those cases didn’t have prenatal care. Health Canada has approved a rapid test for both HIV and syphilis, that can be administered by a health professional, but it is not being widely distributed by any level of government.