More than 100 communities across at least 47 cities have set up HIV testing sites for Canada’s annual National HIV Testing Day on Thursday.
This is the second annual event of its kind, organized by the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS), in association with local health workers and community organizations. After successfully testing more than 800 Canadians in its first year, event organizers expect to test thousands of Canadians this time around.
“[There’s] at least double the testing sites this year so far,” Gary Lacasse, executive director of the CAS, told Global Citizen. “There’s been a tremendous response to the offer of the free testing kits.”
Lacasse says the event looks to tackle barriers to regular HIV testing, while also increasing Canadians’ understanding of sexual health best practices, and reducing stigma.
The HIV test made by bioLytical Laboratories is being used at many of the testing sites and provides results in less than a minute.
Lacasse said that they’ve recently realized that the access to these tests is limited in certain parts of Canada, which likely accounts for the great response they’ve seen.
Today is Canada’s second annual @HIVTestingDay. 14% of HIV-positive Canadians don’t know they have HIV. The only way to know for sure is to get tested. #KnowYourStatus#HIVcanpic.twitter.com/UEscK2AvKS— CATIE (@CATIEinfo) June 27, 2019
“Despite huge advancements in HIV research, stigma still prevents many people from taking the first step: getting tested. Our one-minute HIV test is used anywhere from remote outreach settings to busy city testing events, helping to alleviate stigma and other barriers,” Rick Galli of bioLytical Laboratories said in a statement.
The United Nations wants to eliminate HIV transmission by 2030. They have set a three-part approach to achieve this: the first step is to get more people tested; then, people with HIV need to be put on ARV treatment; and finally, the viral loads of people with HIV need to be reduced to a point where they are essentially unable to transmit the virus.
While access to testing is the first essential part of a plan to eliminate HIV transmission, Lacasse warns that if Canada is going to reduce transmission rates for good, more action — as well as as is financial and governmental support — is needed.
“Research is good for new technologies to be adapted but… we have to start doing concrete measures because HIV transmission rates are going through the roof,” Lacasse said.
In Canada, there were 2,402 new HIV cases reported in 2017, which accounted for an increase of 3% from 2016 — and an increase of 17.1% since 2014, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Only 20% of Canadians living with HIV are unaware of their HIV-positive status, according to CAS. This can further the cycle of HIV transmission.
Lacasse blames complacency on the government’s part for the increase in HIV transmission rates. He says CAS has been denied funding for their national testing initiative and feels strongly that there’s a gaping deficit in funding for HIV/AIDS initiatives. He also said that Canada does not have sufficient data collection systems to track transmission rates everywhere.
“Let’s get off the pot and get the work done,” he said. “We are able to reverse the curve in as short as five years, we don’t have to wait 10 years, but we need the investment structure.”
Lacasse added, however, that there are great people working to address this issue in government, like the minister of health, but that bureaucracy is getting in the way of impact.
“It is important for us to prevent new HIV infections and the day organized by the Canadian AIDS Society is a unique opportunity to demystify the importance of getting tested,” Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor said in a statement. “We must also work hard to end HIV-related stigma, as its elimination can help prevent new infections, motivate undiagnosed people to get tested, and ensure that people living with HIV get the care, treatment and care they need and the necessary support.”
The theme for this year’s event is #KnowYourStatus, which is meant to showcase the importance of testing for HIV, but testing for other STIs is also available.
Lacasse highlights the need for a multi-prong approach to tackling HIV/AIDS, including access to comprehensive sexual education.
Access to information could help tackle the epidemic among young people — 26% of all HIV diagnoses in Canada were in people aged 15 to 29 between 1985 and 2017.
Lacasse is excited to announce that next year the CAS will be launching a National Testing Week, instead of limiting the event to just one day.