Sask. monkeypox response questioned at international conference in Montreal

Discussion at the International AIDS Conference 2022 in Montreal last week turned to the increasing number of monkeypox outbreaks around the world. One researcher raised concerns that provinces such as Saskatchewan might have difficulty containing the disease.

Infectious disease expert says province's track record on HIV, STIs raises concerns

Monkeypox outbreaks are increasing around the world, and at least one expert has issued a warning to provinces such as Saskatchewan that have not responded well to outbreaks in the past. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Saskatchewan's track record for dealing with infectious diseases has been called into question on the international stage.

The 24th International AIDS Conference was held in Montreal last week. The world's increasing number of monkeypox outbreaks became a topic of discussion, given the spread of cases in recent months.

One researcher expressed concern that some regions do not take such outbreaks seriously enough, singling out Saskatchewan in the process.

"We know that in Saskatchewan there's been many challenges, both with HIV and sexually transmitted infections, especially among vulnerable populations including Indigenous communities," said Marina Klein, research director and professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and chronic viral illnesses service at McGill University in Montreal.

While Saskatchewan has only reported two cases of monkeypox, both in July, there have been more than 19,000 cases reported in 78 countries in the last several months.

Comparisons have been made to HIV because the disease is most easily transmitted through prolonged face-to-face or sexual contact. The majority of the cases reported have been among men who have sex with other men.

Saskatchewan has seen elevated HIV transmission rates for years, often having the highest rates in Canada.

There were a record-breaking 237 diagnoses in 2021, an increase of nearly 30 per cent from the previous year and more than double the national average.

The province also struggles with other sexually transmitted infections.

For example, Saskatchewan's rate of syphilis cases grew by 891 per cent from 2016 to 2020, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, also two to three times higher than the national rate. Much of those increases are seen in vulnerable communities, including among First Nations.

Saskatoon's Prairie Harm Reduction has begun providing information to clients about the risks and cautions associated with monkeypox.

Kayla DeMong, the executive director, says groups such as hers have reason to be concerned as any easily spread disease or sickness is worrisome to agencies that work with the vulnerable in Saskatchewan.

"It's hard to put a lot of faith in our province when we've consistently seen some massive gaps when it comes to sufficient planning for health pandemics and endemics in vulnerable populations," she said.

Kayla DeMong, executive director at Prairie Harm Reduction, says groups such as hers have reason to be concerned because they work with the vulnerable. (Submitted by Kayla DeMong)

She chalks that up to a lack of consideration from those who lead the fight to contain these diseases.

"Often when plans are made, they're not made [with] vulnerable populations in mind," she said. "They're made for a general population."

She noted that numerous Saskatoon-based organizations that work with vulnerable people meet regularly to discuss the challenges facing their clients, including monkeypox. 

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry will only say the risk of catching the disease is low in Saskatchewan, and that the province is keeping a close eye on cases.

"The Saskatchewan Ministry of Health is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada to investigate all reports of potential cases of monkeypox in Saskatchewan. Public health authorities and clinicians are advised to be vigilant and to consider monkeypox in their differential diagnosis of patients presenting with unusual rash, plus other clinical signs consistent with monkeypox," a written statement provided by the ministry reads. 

The statement also indicates that information is being disseminated. 

"Public awareness and education is being provided through the Government of Saskatchewan website, social media and various outreach efforts. The Saskatchewan Health Authority is currently in the midst of doing outreach work with identified high risk groups. The Ministry of Health is also working with various community organizations and businesses (food banks, gyms, clubs, etc.) to better inform the public about potential risks."


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