Pubdate: Tue, 07 Jan 2003
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2003, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Andre Picard


Testing Positive At Twice The Rate Of Non-Aboriginals, Researchers Say

Two in every five aboriginal intravenous drug users in Vancouver have 
already contracted HIV-AIDS, an infection rate as high as many of the 
hardest-hit communities in Africa, according to newly published data.

Worse yet, aboriginal IV drug users are getting infected at twice the rate 
of non-aboriginals, damning proof, researchers say, that Canada is losing 
the public health battle against AIDS.

"These are truly astonishing and alarming statistics," said Patricia 
Spittal, a medical anthropologist and lead author of a study published in 
today's edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"We have developing world statistics and we have developing world 
conditions right here in one of the wealthiest countries in the world," she 

Dr. Spittal, who has worked in East Africa and on Canada's West Coast, said 
she was stunned by the similarities in the epidemic among marginalized 
groups, and is troubled by the apathy of Canadian health-policy makers.

The new research is derived from the Vancouver Injection Drug User Study, 
one of the largest projects of its kind. Vancouver researchers have been 
tracking 1,437 IV drug users who were recruited between May of 1996 and 
December of 2000.

The new data, based on 941 of the participants (including 230 natives), are 
the first to look specifically at the situation of aboriginal IV drug 
users, a community that, anecdotally, everyone believes is being devastated 
by HIV-AIDS. It shows that among drug users who were HIV-negative when they 
were recruited, 21.1 per cent of aboriginals and 10.7 per cent of 
non-aboriginals have since been infected.

"We all know the situation is bad but, hopefully, the numbers will provide 
the evidence we need to convince governments to act," said Art Zoccole, 
executive director of the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network. "These 
statistics represent the urgency of dealing with HIV-AIDS in the aboriginal 

Mr. Zoccole said that while IV drug users congregate in big cities such as 
Vancouver, they travel around the country, acting as conduits for the 
spread of HIV-AIDS.

An estimated 50,000 Canadians have been infected with HIV-AIDS, and there 
are an estimated 4,200 new infections annually. Although natives are 2.8 
per cent of the population, more than 6 per cent of new HIV-AIDS cases were 
in the aboriginal community in 2001, a seven-fold increase since 1990, 
according to Health Canada.

While most Canadians are infected through sexual contact, intravenous drug 
use is one of the principal transmission routes among natives, accounting 
for 65 per cent of cases among women and 27 per cent of cases among men. 
(This compares with 6 per cent among non-aboriginals.)

The study reveals various factors that can predict which IV drug users are 
most likely to contract HIV-AIDS. The factors include homelessness, having 
been in jail in the previous six months and frequency of injection, 
particularly with speedballs (a mixture of cocaine and heroin) among women 
and cocaine among men. In fact, those who inject speedballs are more than 
three times as likely to contract HIV-AIDS than those who inject heroin alone.

Martin Schechter, head of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS, said 
the new data demonstrate that public health programs designed to tackle the 
epidemic are woefully short of funds. He said the new findings "should ring 
alarm bells in Ottawa."
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