Checked out: AIDS testing in Nova Scotia falls behind | Cultural Festivals | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Checked out: AIDS testing in Nova Scotia falls behind

Frontline HIV/AIDS workers in this province have fewer resources to work with, and there seems to be a lack of support and desire from the province to help.

Five years ago, the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia launched a campaign called “Check Me Out” to encourage gay men in Nova Scotia to get tested for HIV and other STIs. The campaign ran for almost two years, and during that time the provincial department of health and wellness reported a significant rise in new reported HIV cases among gay men.

We only have the number of diagnoses to begin with because HIV is considered a reportable illness. Health officials are required to keep track of new diagnoses, but not much else. Nova Scotia is considered a low-prevalence province, meaning that rates and diagnoses here are well below the national average.

With resources already stretched to the limit, HIV issues among gay men aren’t exactly on the front burner, causing the whole situation to turn into a Catch-22: There aren’t enough frontline resources to collect more data, and there’s not enough data to determine the funding needed for more resources.

Competing for funding—on the provincial and national level—becomes difficult without numbers to help bolster a case.

Chris Aucoin, the gay men’s health coordinator at the ACNS, expresses frustration over the lack of data in this province.

“We know how many people were diagnosed in a year but we don’t know how many people were tested,” he says.

HIV testing is a perfect example of how behind the province is on HIV policy. Rapid point-of-care testing was approved by Health Canada 15 years ago and is still not available anywhere in Nova Scotia. With this test, a drop of blood is added to a solution and reveals within minutes whether or not HIV antibodies are present.

In most major Canadian cities, it’s usually available at drop-in clinics but also wherever testing can be confidentially done (such as during Pride festivals). In Nova Scotia, a blood sample is sent to a lab and the results come back in a week or two.

Aucoin suspects that many men in Halifax are getting tested elsewhere, in bigger cities where there’s easier access from organizations that offer immediate results with total anonymity or confidentiality.

So, the truth is that “we don’t know exactly how many people are actually living with HIV in the province at any given time.”

The ACNS, meanwhile, has recently been forced to downsize due to a loss in funding. The primary money used for gay men’s health is currently earmarked for a leadership program for young gay men called Totally Outright, which has been offered the past two years. The future of the other programming for gay men is unclear at this point.

A Vancouver gay men’s organization named the Community Based Research Centre is in the initial stages of setting up an office in Halifax, and has hired health researcher Kirk Furlotte as manager for the Atlantic region.

Federally funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada through the HIV and Hepatitis C Community Action Fund, he’ll be focused on initiatives like increasing access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), rapid testing and general policy advocacy in the region.

ACNS and the CBRC are already partnering on a nationwide survey being conducted during Halifax Pride and to make PrEP more accessible. Nova Scotia currently has no timeline for when or if healthcare coverage will be available for the drug, which can greatly decrease the chance of HIV infections.

A year into the ACNS’ Check Me Out campaign men who had sex with men accounted for 70 percent of HIV diagnoses in Nova Scotia. In 2016 after the program ended, rates returned to around 55 percent.

Surveys conducted afterwards showed a high level of satisfaction with the campaign and there were plans to adapt it in Ontario—with some of the questions needing to be changed because of the greater testing options available in that province.
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