Sexual health groups call for more testing as N.S. HIV cases increase

Sexual health organizations in Halifax said Nova Scotia needs to improve access  to HIV testing. (iStock - image credit)
Sexual health organizations in Halifax said Nova Scotia needs to improve access to HIV testing. (iStock - image credit)

Sexual health organizations in Halifax are calling for more testing resources after Nova Scotia public health reported an increase in newly diagnosed HIV cases in the province.

In a news release on Monday, public health said they normally see 15 to 20 new cases of HIV per year, but this year they've already recorded 20 to 25 new cases as of the end of August.

They said they've observed most new cases to be coming from social circles in the Halifax Regional Municipality, but there are still cases showing up throughout the province.

Catherine Brown, medical officer of health for the central zone, said the uptick in cases is partly due to fewer people being tested during the first two years of the pandemic. Many labs normally used to process HIV tests were diverted to focus on COVID-19 testing.

Even taking into consideration the backlog from the last two years, Brown said they're still noticing an abnormal increase of cases.

"The timing of this increase coincides with the lifting of public health measures for COVID-19 when individuals are likely having more social interactions in the spring and the summer," said Brown.

The department is urging people to get tested if they are in an increased-risk group. However, access to testing is insufficient according to some Halifax sexual health organizations.

"Even before COVID, sexual health testing infrastructure in this province was inadequate," said Chris Aucoin, executive director of the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia.

Submitted by Chris Aucoin
Submitted by Chris Aucoin

He said testing is key to addressing HIV, as people can often pass it on without knowing they had it in the first place. However, he said testing capacity in Nova Scotia has long been overburdened.

"Every time there's a bit of a dust up like this, you know, alarm bells go up, but nothing changes in terms of the system that would help prevent that from happening in the future," said Aucoin.

Abbey Ferguson, the executive director of the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, said her clinic has been overworked for a long time.

"We very consistently have an extremely high request for those tests, or for all testing really, that we are not able to meet every single month," said Ferguson.

Prevention first

Aucoin said the province could be doing more to help prevent the spread of HIV like improving access to PreP.

PreP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a pill that can prevent the HIV virus from taking hold in the body. Aucoin says many provinces, like P.E.I., have programs in place to reduce the cost of PreP for vulnerable populations or even provide it for free.

"It's not just a nice idea on paper, and the reality is it's very, very effective and it's proven to be very effective," said Aucoin.

"So we would definitely like to see Nova Scotia finally, you know, step up to that table and make that happen here as well."

Brown said public health is increasing access to testing at the QEII's STI clinic for people who are at a higher risk of contracting HIV, including men who have sex with men and those who share drug equipment.

She also said public health is looking at more prevention strategies like PreP, contact tracing and trying to improve public education on HIV/AIDS.

The department is encouraging people at a higher risk to get tested regularly. A full list of risk factors, recommended actions, and resource centres is available on the Nova Scotia Health website.

The AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia also has free HIV self-test kits available through the I'm Ready national research project.