Saskatchewan's HIV infection rate a 'crisis': top health doctor

Health officials in Saskatchewan are pressing the alarm button over what they are calling a "crisis" in new HIV infections.
Dr. Moira McKinnon, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, is concerned about the province's rising incidence of HIV. ((CBC))
Health officials in Saskatchewan are pressing the alarm button over what they are calling a "crisis" in HIV infections.

New infections with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, were detected in 174 people in Saskatchewan in 2008, according to information obtained by CBC News from the provincial Health Ministry. That is a 40 per cent increase over the 124 new cases detected in 2007.

"The crisis is that people are being infected with an invariably fatal disease at an increasing rate in Saskatchewan," Dr. Moira McKinnon, the province's chief medical health officer, told CBC News. "We have a big problem. We're going to have to act quickly and work hard to stop this acceleration. It's an acceleration of rate, it's not just a steady increase."

McKinnon said she would not be surprised if 200 to 300 new infections would be found by the end of 2009.

'I have three nieces... and they all got it'—Danita Wahpoosewyan, community worker living with HIV

"A lot of these new cases come from abuse situations and poverty situations," McKinnon added. "So as a community we need to look at the upstream factors and why this has happened."

Danita Wahpoosewyan doesn't know how she acquired HIV, but she tested positive three years ago.

"I didn't believe it," Wahpoosewyan recalled of being told she was positive. "I thought I would never, ever get it."

Danita Wahpoosewyan is a Regina community worker living with HIV. ((CBC))

But Wahpoosewyan was leading a high-risk lifestyle: injecting drugs with shared needles and in a relationship with a man who was HIV positive.

Today, Wahpoosewyan works in Regina's north-central community for the organization AIDS Programs South Saskatchewan on a needle-exchange program for intravenous drug users.

With herself — and much of her immediate family — living with HIV, Wahpoosewyan knows all too well about the statistics that health officials are concerned about.

Rising rate linked to drug use

"I have three nieces... and they all got it," Wahpoosewyan said. "I think they caught it before me. But they were always at my house, fixing."

"Saskatchewan IDU, intravenous drug users, use up to 20 needles a day because they use injectable cocaine," McKinnon noted in trying to account for the province's soaring rate of new HIV infections. "In other provinces, they tend to smoke the cocaine."

McKinnon added that some people are testing positive for a unique, and troublesome, strain of HIV.

"Our HIV cases are not responding well to treatment," McKinnon said. "It also seems to be a more virulent form of HIV."

McKinnon said work has already begun to co-ordinate a response to Saskatchewan's alarming HIV infection rate, including increased testing and developing a strategy with law enforcement, health care and community agencies.

Saskatchewan's HIV incidence rate, compared with the national average ((Source: Public Health Agency of Canada, HIV and AIDS in Canada))