HIV testing remains low in the north

Many people still don’t know they are living with HIV, says Northern Health.

World AIDS day is held on Dec. 1 each year to raise awareness and show support for people living with HIV.

Improvements in testing and treatment have made HIV a manageable chronic disease. However, there are still many people living with HIV in Northern B.C. who are not getting tested until they have a serious HIV related illness.

The HIV epidemic in Northern Health peaked in 2004 with 33 new HIV diagnoses. Although the overall trend in new diagnoses has been declining since then, there are still about 15 newly identified cases every year in the region.

Between 2010 and 2014, there were 76 new cases of HIV infections in the Northern Health region.

According to a report prepared by Northern Health earlier this year, many people in the north are diagnosed with advanced HIV infection, which means that a person has been living with HIV for many years and is at risk for developing HIV related infections.

Despite an increase in HIV testing of 39 per cent in Northern B.C. between 2009 to 2014, the number of people getting tested remains low, according to Northern Health.

“We know that awareness, testing and treatment are increasing, but some people are still unaware of their infection,” said Ciro Panessa, Northern Health’s Regional Director of Chronic Diseases.

People still die from HIV, and one of the reasons is the fact that many people don’t know they are living with the virus because they have never been tested.

According to Northern Health, more acute care facilities are starting to offer an HIV test as part of regular blood work. Fort St. James, Vanderhoof and Fraser Lake introduced this practice in spring of 2014.

Point-of-care testing still not available in Burns Lake

There are two types of HIV tests available in British Columbia – the standard laboratory test and the point-of-care test.

The standard laboratory test is done using a blood sample taken from your arm; the result is available in one to two weeks. The second type, called point-of-care test (also known as “rapid test”), uses a drop of blood taken from your finger; the result is available in a few seconds.

Although point-of-care testing is now offered at eight Northern Health and First Nations Health Authority sites, it is still not available in the Lakes District.

“Northern Health is very aware of the need to extend point-of-care testing across the north,” said Jonathon Dyck, Spokesperson for Northern Health.

Dyck said Northern Health receives a “limited number of point-of-care kits” each year, and that they are looking for ways to utilize them more effectively. Northern Health completed a review of all point of care sites last summer and is now examining the possibility to extend point-of-care testing to more areas across the north.

“Burns Lake will be included with this review,” he said.

Northern Health began promoting point-of-care testing in designated centres in 2010. This kind of test is already available in Prince George, Smithers, Skidegate and through the Nak’azdli.

Can people get tested anonymously in Burns Lake?

Fears of provider’s judgement and breeches in confidentiality are obstacles to obtaining HIV care for many people.

In British Columbia, positive HIV test results are shared with public health, in a confidential manner, to ensure that people diagnosed are offered support and follow-up. However, when getting an HIV test, a person can request to have a non-nominal test using non-identifying information such as initials or an alias.

Some clinics allow you to test using a numbered code and give no contact information. This is called anonymous testing, and is currently being offered at a limited number of sites in B.C., not including Burns Lake.

HIV epidemic has evolved differently in Northern B.C.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic has evolved differently in Northern B.C. than it has in the province overall, according to the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

While men who have sex with men are the main source of new HIV infections in B.C. (58 per cent), they represent only 13 per cent of newly diagnosed infections in Northern B.C.

Heterosexual transmission, on the other hand, is 39 per cent in Northern B.C. compared to 25 per cent provincially.

Injection drug use is one of the primary routes of transmission of HIV in the north and accounts for 37 per cent of cases, compared to 12 per cent of cases in the province.