Health officials are concerned about a high rate of HIV among Manitoba's aboriginal population, and they're urging the province to improve its testing services, particularly in northern and rural areas.
Of the 80 people newly diagnosed with HIV in Manitoba last year, 53 per cent identified themselves as aboriginal (First Nations, Métis or Inuit).
Mike Payne, executive director of the Nine Circles Community Health Centre in Winnipeg, said he fears many aboriginal people living with HIV are going undetected due to inadequate testing in the province.
"It is very frightening for us," he said Friday, on the eve of World AIDS Day and the launch of Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week in Canada.
The Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) is kicking off a week-long series of events across the country with a major conference today at the Delta Winnipeg. Secondary events are taking place in Victoria, Regina, Toronto, Halifax and Iqaluit in the coming days.
Art Zoccobe, the organization's president, said aboriginal people represent close to eight per cent of Canadians living with HIV, yet they make up only 3.8 per cent of the country's population.
"One aboriginal person a day becomes infected with HIV (in Canada)," said Zoccobe, who is infected with HIV.
The focus of the Winnipeg conference, which will be attended by health officials, outreach workers and aboriginal leaders, is Getting to Zero, as in zero new HIV infections.
Payne said increased testing, particularly point-of-care tests, in which clients are able to learn on the spot whether they have HIV, is critical. Such tests are only available at Nine Circles on Broadway and at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. They are not offered outside the city.
Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau said the province is looking at expanding point-of-care testing to Thompson and other locations.
Manitoba and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority have launched an ad campaign promoting safe sex to reduce the spread of HIV. They are also distributing "harm-reduction kits" consisting of condoms and clean needles to people who may be at risk of getting the disease. One in 10 new HIV cases last year in Manitoba was attributed to intravenous drug use.
The kits cost 59 cents each and have drawn criticism from some quarters, but Rondeau defends them on cost and humanitarian grounds. He said the cost of treating someone with HIV ranges from $15,000 to $25,000 a year. For those with full-blown AIDS, the price soars to between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, he said.
Rondeau said there continues to be a misconception that HIV is "a gay disease." The statistics say otherwise. Two-thirds of new cases in Manitoba in 2011 were transmitted through heterosexual sex.
53: percentage of new HIV cases in 2011 involving aboriginal people
44: percentage of new HIV cases last year involving women
67: percentage of HIV cases where the disease was spread through heterosexual sex
18: percentage of HIV cases attributed to men having sex with men
11: percentage of HIV cases attributed to intravenous drug use