The Current

Rising HIV rates in Sask. push doctors to call for state of emergency

People are dying of HIV/AIDS in Saskatchewan at a rate 4-times higher than the rest of Canada. Indigenous people are disproportionately affected. Doctors in the province who treat those with HIV say this is nothing less than a public health emergency.
Saskatchewan doctors are desperate for help to address the dire health crisis they are facing with the rising HIV rates in their province. They are calling for the government to declare a public health state of emergency. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

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As the numbers of HIV rates continue to rise in Saskatchewan, doctors in the province say the situation has reached a critical point, and a state of emergency needs to be called.

People in Saskatchewan are dying at a rate 4-times higher than the rest of Canada and are contracting HIV at a rate that is twice as high as the rest of the country. Most of those cases of infection are Indigenous people — a number that many think is inaccurate and could be higher because it's believed First Nations communities are under reporting.

We have people living very difficult lives... which makes it difficult for them to access care.- Saskatoon physician Dr. Ryan Meili

Now, a group of 30 doctors who work in Saskatchewan are saying 'enough is enough.' They are calling on the province to declare a medical state of emergency.

"We've had over 1,500 people diagnosed with HIV in the province — not just diagnosed but people getting sick and dying," Dr. Ryan Meili tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

In 2014, there were 114 new cases reported. That number spiked 50 per cent in one year to 158 cases in 2015.

"We have people living very difficult lives, living in poverty, living in lives that are quite chaotic, which makes it difficult for them to access care," says Dr. Meili.

"And then we just don't have the type of a plan necessary to reach the whole population, and that's the second reason we're calling for a state of emergency."

Dr. Meili, a family physician in Saskatoon, told Tremonti that after a decade of watching the situation get worse, he's losing his patience and is now taking this fight to the public.

UNITED NATION'S 90-90-90 TARGET

The Current did speak with Dr. Denise Werker, the deputy chief medical health officer for Saskatchewan, who says the government is currently working to align with the goals of the United Nation's 90-90-90 Initiative — a 2020 target that would mean 90 per cent of people who have HIV know they have the disease; 90 per cent of people infected are on antiretrovirals;  90 per cent of people those with HIV  to a point where the disease undetectable.

"We continue to strengthen HIV testing. At the beginning of 2009, there were no point of care testing sites. In 2012 there were 20 and in 2016 as of September there were 59 sites," says Werker.

Dr. Meili told Tremonti he was pleasantly surprised to hear the Saskatchewan government had the U.N.'s 90-90-90 goals in their sites.

"If we were able to achieve it would really result in the end of AIDS and almost no new cases of HIV," he said.

Dr. Meili tells Tremonti if the provincial government put in place the resources and a plan there would be no need to push for a state of emergency.

NOT JUST RESOURCES

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

But this struggle is not just about access to proper medical care.

Danita Wahpoosewyan is on the board of the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network and has been living with HIV for 11 years. She tells Tremonti that the stigma around being tested is debilitating the community.

"There was an instance where my my own daughter had told me that I wasn't allowed to kiss my grandchildren anymore, and I have nine grandchildren," says Wahpoosewyan.

"Today she's very educated and we have a better relationship now."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith, Kristin Nelson and Ines Colabrrese.

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