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Alarming rate of HIV in Aboriginal population.

PRINCE ALBERT

The startling statistics that have recently been forecast on the amount of Aboriginal people that will suffer from HIV and AIDS only scratches the surface, says the CEO of an Aboriginal HIV/AIDS organization in Saskatchewan.

Margaret Akan of the All Nations Hope AIDS Network is certain that the negative stigma associated with HIV/AIDS is preventing many Aboriginals from being tested for the disease.

"We don't even know the numbers of everyone living with HIV. The population is underground," said Akan, who is confident the current count of the infected is modest.

It all started August 20 when several articles were published about the findings of Dr. Kham Chokani, medical health officer for Prince Albert Parkland Health Regions, who compared the future death rate of Canada's First Nations to that of sub-Saharan Africa.

"If you think decimating the African population was bad... HIV in this province will kill 15 to 30 per cent (of the Aboriginal population). Not all at one time, but over a five to 10-year period," Chokani announced to the media.

Chokani, who has worked in countries across southern Africa, also said the increase in HIV cases in Saskatchewan are substantial and are appearing primarily in young females, pregnant women and newborn babies.

Akan said she realizes Dr. Chokani's forecast of Saskatchewan's Aboriginal population sounded extreme, but she believes he is accurate. Furthermore, she was upset to read follow-up articles that dubbed Chokani's statistics as unlikely.

"I think they are good numbers. If we were able to test every Aboriginal person in Saskatchewan for HIV, we would have a truer picture of what is really happening in our community," said Akan.

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Moira McKinnon agrees that one of the main difficulties with controlling the spread of HIV is not having accurate data of how many are infected.

In 2008 there were 174 new cases of HIV in Saskatchewan. McKinnon said it was still too early to know how many cases there were for 2009, but she estimated it would likely be around 200.

She predicted the number of new cases would continue to rise for at least the next two years as more efforts are made to encourage people to go get tested.

"A survey that we have done, many users, in fact the majority, over 50 per cent have never had a test done," said McKinnon.

McKinnon also said she will request a "substantial" amount of money from the government in November to continue with newly-implemented strategies to help reduce the spread of HIV. Some strategies include task groups designed to address some of the weaknesses of Saskatchewan--a province that has close to double the national average of people with HIV- in its fight against AIDS.

Surveillance Data and Information Sharing Group

"One of the big problems is that we don't have good information. We need to do more research to tackle why it is occurring here, what are the trends that make it happen. And information sharing between regional health authorities within Saskatchewan," said McKinnon.

Clinical Group

"There are a lot of people who are positive who are not on treatment, so we are looking at ways to help that and some of that is about feeling comfortable with the health system... Reducing a stigma and making it comfortable for them to disclose."

MacKinnon also said easy access to anti-virals is key and that good management of the virus reduces the chance of transmission.

Harm Reduction Group

"Saskatchewan, with a population of 1 million, hands out 4 million clean needles a year...it's related to the Saskatchewan unique drug habit of intravenous (IV) use of cocaineO These cocaine addicts need to repeatedly inject, up to 10 to 20 times a day."

MacKinnon added that she has observed a specific custom that is often accompanied with the use of cocaine.

"The pattern is that families sit down and share cocaine, parents share it with their children. We have injecting drug users as young as 13 or 14."

Akan concurred with McKinnon and said it was not uncommon to have two or three generations within the same family walk into the All Nations Hope Network and seek help with dealing with their HIV. She believes this is not only a side effect of family addictions, but also to the far too common scenario of young women who get pregnant and who are unaware that they are carriers of the virus.

According to Akan, who began working with HIV and AIDS in 1988, the virus is so dominant in Aboriginal communities because it is a reflection of numerous social conditions that have been passed down to each new generation.

The All Nations Hope Network began a program in April where they will closely track all the walk-ins they receive and services they provide for an entire year. The plan is to present the data to the government and receive additional funding to provide more than just temporary solutions.

"When someone walks through the doors of All Nations Hope and asks us for help, we don't want to put band-aids on them, we want to get to the root causes," said Akan. "And it's not just a six week program."

Getting to the core of what is fuelling people with addictions that put them at risk for HIV is the only permanent solution to controlling the spread of the virus, said Akan. However, she did admit that it can be an overwhelming task.

BY ISHA THOMPSON

Staff Writer-Sage
COPYRIGHT 2009 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:HEALTH
Author:Thompson, Isha
Publication:Saskatechewan Sage
Date:Sep 1, 2009
Words:917
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