For the first time, injection drug use has become the most likely way HIV is transmitted in the province, surpassing heterosexual sex.
The finding is part of a July 2019 Manitoba HIV program update, obtained by the NDP through freedom of information law and presented in question period Wednesday.
The report’s authors suggest the province take a harm-reduction approach to stop the spread of HIV, which would include "increased access to harm-reduction equipment... to address the increase in injection drug use among clients new to care."
NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara, who worked as a psychiatric nurse and addictions specialist before becoming an MLA last month, emphasized the government should consider a safe consumption site for drug users as part of a harm-reduction approach.
"We do know that safer consumption sites definitely help populations that are struggling with problematic substance use and addictions access the services and resources they need to have better health-care outcomes. And so that’s why we’re advocating for harm-reduction-based resources," Asagwara said.
"And it’s concerning, and it should be concerning for all Manitobans that this government isn’t taking those potential strategies seriously."
The report detailed other disturbing statistics for Manitoba, including that 25 per cent of the 115 new patients in the HIV care program last year were also struck with a co-occurring sexually transmitted or blood-borne infection (STBBI). Year-over-year figures from 2014-18 show co-infection rates on the rise. About 51 per cent of new HIV patients were Indigenous, yet Indigenous peoples represented only 17 per cent of the population in 2016.
"Indigenous women accounted for 81.4 per cent of all women diagnosed with HIV in 2018, emphasizing the need for robust, culturally inclusive prevention and testing programming throughout the province," the report said.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen said he’s been in regular contact with the chief public health officer about the rising STBBI rates.
"The trendline that we’re seeing on STBBI rates of infection in this province and indeed across Canada and even in international jurisdictions is not where we want to see it," he said.
Friesen noted the government is looking at "creative and innovative" ways to make public health information and officials more available in locations across the province, including emergency rooms in northern and rural Manitoba.
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.