On September 19th, 2016, physicians from Saskatchewan along with Chief Felix Thomas of the Saskatoon Tribal Council, Vice Chief Kim Jonathan of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and Danita Waypoosewyan made a statement asking the Regional Government of Saskatchewan to declare a state of emergency to address HIV and AIDS. The group outlined below a 4 point plan to help address the epidemic of HIV and AIDS in Saskatchewan.
- Declare a state of public health emergency
- Formally adopt the UNAIDS 90-90-90 goals to eradicate HIV by 2020
- Adopt and implement the 10-point plan created by provincial stakeholders (clinical and community) in 2015, with special emphasis on naming an individual or body with the resources and authority to take action to implement the plan and achieve these goals
- Offer universal coverage of anti-retroviral treatment for all HIV+ patients in Saskatchewan immediately, regardless of jurisdiction
They outlined the numbers in Saskatchewan are the highest rate of new cases of HIV in the country, at times double or even triple the national average. Recent years have seen a relative decrease in new cases, but 2015 saw another spike with 158 new cases in the province, up from 112 in 2014 .
The 2015 provincial rate was 13.8 cases per 100,000 people , more than double the 2014 Canada-wide rate of 5.8 per 100,000 per year. Spread across the entire province, 158 new cases may not seem like a lot. However, certain communities – urban, rural and reserve – have been hit particularly hard, with local epidemics that rival some of the hardest hit regions of the world.
Taken all together, 1,515 people in Saskatchewan have been diagnosed with HIV in the last decade. Indigenous communities have been the most impacted, with 1075 cases among First Nations and Métis people, an inordinately high proportion (71%) given that less than 20% of the province’s population identifies as Indigenous .
One of the other speakers at the press release was Danita Waypoosewyan who is a CAAN Board member. She spoke of her experience of living with HIV over the last 11 years. It was powerful to hear her share, speaking about the stigma that is a huge part of a life with HIV. Danita spoke about “the need to support our brothers and sisters no matter where they are, no matter what they are doing.” Another key point was that we are all affected by HIV, that her family is affected by HIV.
I just happened to be in Saskatchewan, and I’m thankful to social media I was able to attend this press release. It is very apparent that we need to ensure our people are being engaged in any response to this crisis. It is also important to keep in mind that we need to do what we can to prevent new cases and in particular, we need to provide support to people at risk for contracting HIV as well as Hepatitis C.
For many of us who have been working in the on-going HIV and AIDS response, already know that there are high rates of infection among our people. One of the more difficult challenges we face is explaining our communities hat HIV and AIDS is still here. The face of HIV and AIDS has changed over the years. Many of our people who use injection drugs and who engage in unprotected sex, are in need of non-judgmental support, care and treatment to prevent contracting HIV.
As Indigenous people, we have a strong history of resilience and strength. We have our culture and our teachings of our elders that can help guide us. In Saskatchewan, there is the Saskatchewan Indigenous HIV and AIDS Strategy, which can be used to help communities and leadership to develop their own response.
Margaret Poitras, All Nations Hope CEO, stated it best, “It is time to coordinate a way forward that includes Indigenous ways as part of addressing root causes of HIV in Saskatchewan. This includes Indigenous ways, teachings, ceremonies and languages, which are important in creating solution-based programs and policies”. I truly support and believe that we have all the tools we need to work in partnership with government departments to address this challenge and to continue supporting our people.