Sask. reports record number of new HIV cases

Saskatchewan healthcare officials announced that the province underwent a record breaking increase of new HIV cases, with 237 new diagnoses in 2021.

The increase, driven in part by intravenous drug use, marks a 30 per cent increase from the year previous.

Saskatchewan routinely exceeds the national average of HIV cases per capita, but 2021 marked an all time high with the provincial rate being approximately three times the national average.

Dr. Johnmark Opondo, a medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, explained there are multiple new factors to the increase in infections.

“The key drivers of HIV transmission in our community, in Saskatchewan, which is in various proportions, are needle sharing (with) partners and sexual transmission,” he said.

“So that’s really the underlying foundation of why our numbers are up.”

According to Margaret Kisikaw Piyesis, the CEO of Communities Alliances and Networks, the pandemic denying essential services to those suffering with addictions, had a lot to do with the historic increase.

“We’ve seen some of the services which are most essential to people who are actively using close down,” she explained. “So needle exchange programs, there was limited access to care, treatment and support for people who are most at risk of HIV, Hepatitis C, Syphilis, some of the other diseases that were have in our communities around addictions.”

There are services to minimize the spread of HIV. The Newo Yotina Friendship Centre offers clean needles but only has enough funding to operate during the day.

“We’re trying our best to send out clean needles, clean pipes, clean things so that you know it’s not being transmitted in that direction but I feel like we can’t work at our maximum capacity with the hours that we have,” said Emile Gariepy, who works at the centre.

“If we could reach out with longer hours, then we could reach out to more people.”

Due to the pandemic putting stress on the healthcare system as well as other essential services, it is not surprising that the numbers have increased, according to Opondo.

“If you stop attending care, or you skip your medication, that becomes a little bit of a risk factor,” he said. “There’s enough of an underlying pressure of HIV and when the pandemic and other issues distracted our patients from attending care, you know that was enough for our HIV numbers to inch back upward again.”

Going forward, Opondo maintains that the best way to the control the numbers is getting those already living with HIV the treatment they need, being proactive and educating the public on the risks of the disease.

“When we had an HIV focused strategy from 2006 to 2011, we did show by bringing focus and bringing all the attention we could to addressing HIV, we were able to bring the numbers down,” he said.

“So I am hopeful we can address the situation.”

New HIV cases reported in Saskatchewan (Annual)

  • 2009 - 199
  • 2010 - 174
  • 2011 - 188
  • 2012 - 184
  • 2013 - 129
  • 2014 - 121
  • 2015 - 163
  • 2016 - 174
  • 2017 - 177
  • 2018 - 168
  • 2019 - 199
  • 2020 - 184
  • 2021 - 237

(Sources: Canada Communicable Disease Report: 2009-2014 / Government of Canada / Saskatchewan Ministry of Health).