Harm reduction models in Indigenous communities across Saskatchewan have been showing signs of success even as rates of HIV infections continues to rise.
Dr. Ibrahim Khan, the chief medical health officer for Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch in Saskatchewan, says even though there was a 10 per cent increase in HIV cases in Indigenous communities in 2016, the massive increase of HIV testing in these communities is a positive step towards stopping the virus’s spread.
“For us this is quite an achievement,” he said. “The whole point in the HIV and Hepatitis C story is the earlier you can diagnose, the better you have a handle on stoping the spread … but we want to increase that number — we want to even double that number in the coming years — so that testing is not an barrier.”
Taking this harm reduction approach helps communities reduce the negative consequences associated with drug use by providing the care each patient needs without judgement, he said. Harm reduction can encompass anything from promoting safe drug use at injection sites and needle exchanges to beating addiction with help from opioid replacement and addictions programs.
Currently 19 Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan have implemented harm reduction programs to limit the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV. This access to care in a culturally safe space has created a centre where a patient can be immediately linked to all the necessary services they need without facing the stigma that can sometimes be attached — the biggest hurdle Khan says currently faced by Indigenous people looking for care.
One of the most successful is the New Beginning Program. Khan says although it’s a relatively new program — run and led off reserve in Kamsack by the Cote First Nation — it has shown massive success dealing with the stigma surrounding HIV, providing cultural safety for its patients, offering skills building and outreach services and limiting the main risk factor for the spread of these viruses through a needle exchange program.
Though the 19 communities that have implemented these programs are seeing positive results, Khan says Health Canada wants to see even more communities introducing safe injection sites — especially those where blood-born pathogens such as Hepatitis C and HIV are gaining a strong foothold.
Current rates of HIV infection on Saskatchewan reserves vary across the province but still sit at a much higher level than the 2016 provincial average of 14.5 people infected out of 100,000. Reserves in southern Saskatchewan currently have the highest rates of HIV infection at 108 people per 100,000, followed by those in central areas of the province at 32 per 100,000 and those in the north at 28 per 100,000.
Author: ERIN PETROW