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There Are New Strains of HIV in Canada — and They're Immune-Resistant

As if HIV weren't threatening enough, research made public last week showed that mutated strains of the virus have appeared in the province of Saskatchewan.

The mutated strains of HIV are increasing the speed at which AIDS-related sickness develops in the Indigenous population, according to a study presented at the 2018 AIDS Conference in Amsterdam.

The research, from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Simon Fraser University, showed that these strains have higher levels of immune-resistant mutations when compared to ones in other parts of Canada and the United States.

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“Physicians were saying, ‘There's something going on here that isn't right, people are getting sick very, very fast,’” Zabrina Brumme, lead author of the study, told CBC. “It's almost as if the virus is nastier.”

HIV symptoms generally progress over five to 10 years for people with healthy immune systems, ending with the final stage of AIDS.

“Here in Saskatchewan, we were seeing the rates of progression much quicker, sometimes within 12 months or just a couple of years,” Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious disease specialist in Regina, Saskatchewan, told CBC Saskatchewan's Afternoon Edition.

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This news would be met with negativity in any part of North America, but it’s particularly hard-hitting in Saskatchewan, where some parts of the province experienced HIV incidence rates of more than 10 times the national average in 2016.

Almost 80% of people living with HIV in Saskatchewan are Indigenous.

“It does scare me,” Cote First Nation resident Darryl Caldwell, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2011, told CBC.

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The First Nations of Cote, Key, and Keeseekoose, near Kamsack, Saskatchewan, had an HIV outbreak in 2017.

“So that's very disheartening, because a lot of the people from my community, a lot of my relatives, could be having this strain,” Caldwell told CBC, about the news of the mutated strains.

The study analyzed more than 2,300 HIV sequences from Saskatchewan, as well as others from across Canada and the US, according to CBC.

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“In Saskatchewan, like other places in the world, HIV is adapting to the host populations in which it is circulating,” Brumme told CBC. “In Saskatchewan, the majority of HIV-affected persons are of Indigenous ancestry so HIV, as a result, has adapted to these populations.”

Wong, the infectious disease specialist, outlined the importance of addressing HIV in Saskatchewan. There is already effective treatment available to combat immune-resistant strains, CBC reported.

Treatment involves taking one or two pills every day, which are less toxic and better performing than former medications, Wong said.

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He cautioned that mental illness, homelessness, addiction, and food security can affect a person’s ability to follow the treatment — issues that disproportionately affect Canada’s Indigenous communities.

But treatment is essential to prevention, Wong explained.

“Once you have a fully suppressed or undetectable viral load, your chances of transmitting the virus — even if you continue to practice very high-risk activities — is essentially zero,” Wong told CBC.

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After he was diagnosed, Caldwell set to work on educating First Nations communities.

“As soon as I was diagnosed I was placed on ART, antiretroviral therapy, right away and since then my HIV [viral] load is undetectable,” he told CBC. “That's why it's important for people to get educated and tested, because a lot of people are dying on reserve now from full-blown AIDS because they haven't had access to testing.”

Treatment and education are important factors in addressing the HIV issue in Saskatchewan, but so, too, is eliminating the stigma attached to it, Caldwell said.