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COVID-19, AIDS, and opioids: Converging pandemics reveal ‘cracks’ in Indigenous health services

COVID-19, AIDS, and opioids

The number of HIV cases has been rising in Canada, and it’s having a disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities.

That’s why researchers participating in the 24th annual international AIDS conference, hosted in Montreal, are calling for a new approach to fighting the 50-year-old disease.

Doris Peltier is one of those researchers.

A co-ordinator with the Feast Centre for Indigenous STBBI Research at McMaster University, she is also an Anishinaabe woman living with HIV.

“We need the global community to stand with us,” said Peltier.

The communities she works with are battling converging pandemics: COVID-19, AIDS, and the opioid crisis — a reality that has stretched Indigenous health networks thin.

“It’s exasperated everything for us, and it’s revealed the cracks.”

Those cracks are deep: Indigenous people living on reserves are three times more likely to contract HIV.

Dr. Julie Bruneau, an HIV researcher with the Universite de Montreal, said opioids play a major role in how AIDS impacts Indigenous communities.

“There are many links between HIV and the opioid crisis, and at the centre are people using drugs, and key populations like Indigenous people,” she said.

Advocates like Margaret Kisikaw Piyesis point to poverty, unequal access to medical services and system racism.

“Some of the root causes are because of what happened to our ancestors on this land,” explained Piyesis, CEO of advocacy group Communities, Alliances & Networks (CANN).

LEARNING LESSONS FROM COVID-19

Gaps in healthcare are even wider for Indigenous people living with HIV in remote and northern communities.

Mathieya Alatini is the COVID-19 co-ordinator for the Council of Yukon First Nations.

She said one of the biggest barriers in Yukon in terms of the pandemic is testing.

“There’s one point of care. So it has to be Whitehorse or a central city like Vancouver or Edmonton,” she explained.

Alatini said lessons learned from COVID-19 can be applied to treating HIV in the north, such as by setting up a virtual appointment system.

COVID-19 has restricted access to AIDS testing across Canada in general, meaning it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the numbers.

“We haven’t been able to do surveillance,” explained Dr. Bruneau

But the hope is to bring the latter disease back to the forefront of public health discussions, especially when it comes to Indigenous communities, said Piyesis.

“We want Indigenous people to be at the forefront and talking about those solutions.”

The AIDS conference finishes on Aug. 2.

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