Regular Human Immunodeficiency Virus testing will remove stigmas surrounding the disease, creating more awareness and knowledge about this worldwide epidemic.
The Saskatoon Health Region has announced that it’s patients will be receiving standard offers from doctors to take part in HIV testing — a great step forward in normalizing the disease, equating it with other diseases for which a doctor may test.
With news that HIV rates in Saskatchewan were double the national average in 2008 at 20.8 cases per 100,000 people — towering over the national average of 9.2 cases per 100,000 people — it’s no surprise that this testing is now being offered to citizens of this province. Fortunately, the rates in Saskatchewan dropped to 17 cases per 100,000 people in 2011, but this number is still much higher than the national average — which is why testing is so important.
Now when a patient goes for a visit to the doctor an HIV test could take place alongside other regular tests like cholesterol and high blood pressure — it won’t be a big deal. It’ll just be a question of looking for one more abnormality in a patient’s blood work.
The test will be offered to those in primary or emergency care who are unaware of their HIV status, but will pertain to those between the ages of 13 and 64.
While patients can opt out of the testing, pregnant women, those currently being treated for sexually transmitted diseases as well as those individuals with tuberculosis or hepatitis C will be specifically encouraged to participate in the testing.
Giving patients the opportunity to opt out of the testing is a careful move that allows doctors to ask patients if they’d like to be tested without offending anyone. But what’s so offensive about offering an HIV test in the first place?
Without doubt, many of the stigmas surrounding HIV have to do with the fact that at one time it was seen as a disease that was only spread within gay communities. Indeed, HIV and AIDS were considered ‘gay diseases,’ and thought to be only contracted by homosexual men engaging in unprotected sex.
Although homosexual men account for nearly half of the known cases of HIV cases in Canada, at 46.7 per cent according to the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2011, the disease is now more present than ever within the heterosexual community as well as with those who partake in injection drug use.
Canada’s aboriginal population continues to be over-represented in the HIV epidemic. This highlights the need for certain demographics to be targeted for testing and education over others according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Sadly, many individuals infected with HIV are unaware that they have the virus, causing them to spread it unknowingly. The Public Health Agency of Canada notes that in 2011 a staggering 25 per cent of the 71, 300 individuals who tested positive for HIV had no idea that they were infected in the first place.
With HIV testing becoming a regular practice, those who are unaware of their HIV status will hopefully act accordingly. Whether it’s a case of seeking out proper medications or using protection when having sexual intercourse, the knowledge that comes from HIV test results will be beneficial for all — not only in helping those live with the disease, but also in helping to prevent it from spreading.
As noted, offering regular testing will effectively normalize the disease and remove many stigmas attached to it. We must all remember that HIV does not only affect gay men. We are all susceptible, regardless of how we might contract it.
Hopefully this move to implement HIV testing will create further dialogue about the virus, which will also improve awareness and prevention of it. If we’re not talking about it, how can we ever expect the rates of infection to change?
However, this positive step forward will not be successful in and of itself. As members of a province with rates that were double the national average only a fews years ago, we need to support other positive developments that work towards annihilating the HIV epidemic.
Embracing safe injection facilities, which function like the needle exchange services offered at the 601 at AIDS Saskatoon, will help in the prevention of HIV. After all, it would be negligible to forget that 16.9 per cent of those who tested positive for HIV in 2011 contracted it through injection drug use.
Asking your sexual partners if they’ve received testing is also important — on top of regularly practicing safe sex, of course.
It’s high time to get our heads out of the clouds and be totally confronted with the HIV realities in Saskatchewan and Canada. Regardless of whether you’ve had one sexual partner or 20, be safe and get yourself tested for HIV if testing is offered to you.
Graphic: Cody Schumacher/Graphics Editor