Aboriginal Injection Drug Users More Vulnerable to HIV Infection

Vancouver, January 31, 2008 — Aboriginal people in Vancouver who inject drugs experience a significantly elevated burden of HIV infection, finds a new study authored by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. The research recommends health policy-makers take immediate action and implement evidence-based and culturally appropriate strategies to effectively address high rates of HIV among Aboriginal injection drug users (IDUs).
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, involved 2,496 participants between May 1996 and December 2005, and sought to examine whether existing levels of HIV infection and rates of new HIV infection differed among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal IDUs in Vancouver.

At the study’s outset (baseline), Aboriginal IDUs demonstrated a significantly higher rate of HIV infection than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Baseline HIV infection was 25.1 per cent among Aboriginal persons, and 16 per cent among non-Aboriginal persons. By the end of the 48-month study period, of the participants who were HIV negative at baseline, 18.5 per cent of Aboriginal participants reported new HIV infections, in contrast to 9.5 per cent reported among non-Aboriginal persons.

An evidence-based and culturally sensitive response is urgently needed, says principal study author and BC-CFE research scientist, Dr. Evan Wood.

“A plan of action will require that policy-makers recognize addiction as primarily a health and social issue, and to acknowledge the harms of addressing addiction through a strategy that largely relies on law enforcement,” says Wood. “An effective response to the HIV epidemic among Aboriginal IDUs will build from previously established, evidence-based research, and will have the full participation of Aboriginal people.”

Non-normalizing illicit drug use through culturally appropriate health promotion and prevention programs is of critical importance, adds study co-author Lucy Barney, a nursing consultant and member of the Lillooet Nation.

“Including Aboriginal organizations in a meaningful way in the planning, research, implementation and dissemination of health promotion is the only way to decrease rates of HIV in our population,” says Barney. “Programs that incorporate teachings of who we are as an Aboriginal people will provide a strong sense of pride for our people and will prevent more individuals from turning to drugs as a coping mechanism.”

In North America, injection drug use accounts for approximately one in four cases of HIV. Among populations of IDUs, recent surveillance reports have suggested that ethnic minorities may be particularly vulnerable to HIV infection, the study further explains.

Approximately 13,000 HIV-positive men and women live in B.C., with 58,000 in total across Canada. While B.C. has the third highest number of persons living with HIV after Ontario and Quebec, the province has the highest per capita rate of HIV infection in Canada.

Health economists estimate it will cost at least $150,000 to $250,000 to treat and care for each of these HIV-infected Canadians over their lifetime. At this rate, it will cost nearly $2 to $4 billion to treat and care for all persons infected with HIV living in B.C. More than $58 million was spent on antiretroviral therapy in B.C. in the last fiscal year.

For a full copy of the study or interview requests, please contact Bernadette Amiscaray, media relations, at 604-561-4640, bernadette.amiscaray@karyo-edelman.com or email William Mbaho at william.mbaho@karyo-edelman.com.

About the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
Founded in 1992 by St. Paul’s Hospital and the provincial Ministry of Health, the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS is a key provincial resource seeking to improve the health of people with HIV through the development, ongoing monitoring and dissemination of comprehensive investigative and treatment programs for HIV and related diseases. St. Paul’s Hospital is one of seven care facilities operated by Providence Health Care, Canada’s largest faith-based health care organization.