New research warns that mutated strains of HIV detected in Saskatchewan, Canada, appear to be leading to faster-developing AIDS-related illnesses.

The research, published this month in the science journal “AIDS“, came about after health workers reported rapidly-growing HIV rates in 2016 in the west Canadian province of Saskatchewan, with the vast majority of cases among the province’s First Nation peoples. What was perhaps even more alarming was that these cases appeared to progress to AIDS-related illnesses very quickly after first detection.

HIV is a sinister virus in that its most common strains today can lurk in our bodies for several months without manifesting symptoms. Some people may go years without showing obvious signs of HIV, and the virus may not be picked up unless they undergo regular screening or the infection is caught during another round of tests for an unrelated illnesses.

Cases in Saskatchewan appeared to be different, however, with rapid-onset toward AIDS-illness. Researchers wanted to find out why this might be.

Researchers at a laboratory at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/Aids used a multi-year analysis of 2,300 samples of HIV strains from Saskatchewan province and compared those to other strains obtained from across Canada and the United States. This enabled them to see if there was anything unique or different about the strains — and there was.

Around 98 percent of the strains from Saskatchewan displayed a certain level of immune resistance. The more worrying thing, however, was that 80 percent of the sample carried a mutation that is known to accelerate HIV’s progression into AIDS.

It isn’t the first time that HIV mutations have been a source for concern.

As HIV is a virus we would expect that its various strains would, over time, begin to change as they circulate in their host communities. However, we know that HIV strains in certain regions, for example in the Philippines, are proving harder to treat and are circulating among different populations than in the West. We need new treatment protocols to fully answer this problem.

In Saskatchewan’s case, the illness isn’t necessarily harder to treat, but because it progresses more rapidly than the norm it is a challenge. There is nothing medical making First Nation peoples more susceptible, something the researchers are keen to point out. Rather, it poses a wider population risk.

“It was almost as if there might have been something particularly nastier about the virus,” Zabrina Brumme, the lead author of the study, is quoted by the Guardian as saying, “…What has happened is that HIV has adapted quite quickly as it has been transmitted throughout the communities of people.

“We want to make it clear that HIV strains in Saskatchewan have the potential to cause more rapid disease, period,” Brumme said. “It doesn’t matter who you are.”

The strains are highly treatable, so once the virus is caught a person living with the virus can be helped to get their viral load back under control and, hopefully, down to undetectable levels.

While it is critical to acknowledge that this HIV strain is not capable of targeting specific groups of people, it is just as critical to notice that there is a major HIV problem in Saskatchewan and its First Nation population.

Doctors have called for the government to declare a public health emergency in the province, but more funding hasn’t yet been directed to this problem. The current rate of new infections in Saskatchewan is almost triple the national average, and First Nation people in Canada as a whole have HIV infection rates closer to those of African nations rather than North American averages.

All this has led experts to say that systemic racism, poverty and, by extension, poorer health outcomes among this section of the community is leading to First Nation peoples being more at risk of HIV acquisition. Put simply, if you otherize people for long enough, you plunge them into a vicious cycle of poorer health and life opportunities.

As is the case globally, we can only ever meet the challenge of eradicating HIV if we work aggressively to end discrimination and cultural prejudices, because these are the social barriers that keep people locked in high risk behaviors and an inability to access timely and comprehensive medical care. The provincial and national governments must act to get Saskatchewan’s HIV problem under control and prevent this cycle from affecting more and more lives.

Author: Steve Williams