Saskatoon

HIV rates 2 times higher in Sask. than national average

Saskatchewan continues to lead the country when it comes to new cases of HIV. The province has rates two times higher than the national average.

'It's scary for the whole community who don't even know about it,' says HIV-positive support worker

Saskatchewan continues to lead the country when it comes to new cases of HIV. The province has rates two times higher than the national average. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty)

Saskatchewan continues to lead the country when it comes to new cases of HIV. The province has rates two times higher than the national average. 

"We do have very high rates in Saskatchewan," said Jason Mercredi, an associate director at AIDS Saskatoon. "The highest in Canada."

The number of infected people in Saskatchewan was starting to decrease over the last few years. But in 2015, new cases spiked to 158, an increase from 114 the previous year.

"We have people from all walks of life who are positive," said Mercredi. "I think it's partially stigma and general ignorace."

Mercredi says the top way the virus is being spread in the province is through intravenous drug use. While it is a concern, he warns people shouldn't think it is the only way it is being spread. 

"The problem is everyone wants to focus on the intravenous drugs and it stigmatizes the drug even more," Mercredi said. 

Mercredi admits the numbers are still very high within the Aboriginal population in the province.

A Saskatoon Health Region special report on HIV in the province showed that since 2005, seven out of 10 positive people in Saskatchewan were either First Nation or Métis.

But Mercredi wants people to be careful with those numbers and said there needs to be more education when it comes to HIV.

"Everyone in the province needs to make testing part of their standard medical care. There are still family doctors who say you're not at risk for HIV."

Living with HIV

Mary Ermine Bear found out she was HIV positive when she was 25 years old. She said a lot of her friends are also living with HIV. (Radio-Canada)

Lauren Charles and Mary Ermine Bear have similar stories. The two women live in Prince Albert. They are both HIV positive. Both have young sons who were born after they contracted the disease.

"A lot of my friends have it and I have quite a bit of friends," said Bear. "And a lot of them are high-risk too."

Bear was 25 years old when she became HIV positive. She said she was living a high-risk lifestyle in Saskatoon when she contracted the disease. And she remembers the exact moment she found out.

Stunned and shocked

"I went to go get some needles from the exchange van and they asked if I wanted to get tested," said Bear. "Two weeks later they came and found me and told me I was HIV-positive."

Bear said she was stunned and scared. She didn't know how serious it was at the time. Now she is fearful for the future. 

"I don't know why HIV is attacking so many people. It's here and I think it's meant to stay," she said.

Charles was 24 years old when she became HIV-positive. For the past eight years she's been learning how to live with the virus, taking medication every day just to survive. But as difficult as it's been, Cardinal is now sharing her story with the hope of helping others.

Lauren Charles contracted HIV when she was 24 years old. She said the disease is "scary" for people who are positive and also scary for people who aren't. (Radio-Canada)

Providing support

She now works for the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region educating others about the realities of HIV.

"It's troubling. It's scary not only for the people who have it but for the people who don't understand it," said Charles. "It's scary for the whole community who don't even know about it."

Charles now sits in with people who are getting tested for HIV. She said she's there for support and there to let others know they are not alone.

"Luckily the few I've sat in with have been negative but I'm always scared for them."

Lauren Charles said she contemplated not having her son because she was afraid he'd be born HIV-positive. (Submitted by Lauren Charles )

Both women gave birth to their sons about three years ago. And both women said they considered not having their children because they feared they would also be HIV positive.

"I was always contacting the nurses and asking questions because I was worried about it. I contemplated not having my son," said Charles.

It was a similar feeling for Bear.

"I was scared. I still went through with it. Just because I was HIV positive didn't make me any less of a woman," Bear said.

Both Charles and Bear are doing their part to educate as many people as they can in Prince Albert. They're also calling on leaders in the province to do more as numbers in Saskatchewan continue to rise.

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.