Manitoba Aims to Thwart AIDS Among Aboriginals

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CANADIAN UNIVERSITY PRESS — Winnipeg: Manitoba Health Minister Dave Chomiak is expected to take steps this fall towards creating a province-wide strategy to deal with the growing incidence of AIDS among Manitoba aboriginals.

Between 1996 and 1999, there was an estimated 9 per cent increase in the number of aboriginal people living with HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS, and a 19 per cent increase in the number of newly infected aboriginals.

Chomiak says recommendations from a task force studying AIDS in Manitoba will form the basis of this province wide strategy. Adding, the spread of the disease among aboriginals has not gone unnoticed and “Given the exponential growth of HIV in aboriginal communities, implementation [of an AIDS strategy] hasnt been fast enough for anyone.”

Health Canada experts speculate as many as 20 per cent of the nearly 17,000 people living with AIDS in this country could be aboriginal.

Statistics show that 28.6 per cent of newly documented cases of AIDS among First Nations are people under thirty years old, with almost one in four cases being female. The rate is one in thirteen among non-aboriginals.

“The issues that affect aboriginal people are distinct,” said Albert Mcleod, Executive Director of the Manitoba Aboriginal AIDS Task Force. “Just in terms of the experience of living in Canada, has left many aboriginal people vulnerable to the disease.”

Infection may also be higher among aboriginals because of a lack of education about HIV and AIDS in their communities.

Not every school provides specific instruction about the disease in their sexual education curriculums. Chomiak is trying to change this. His provincial AIDS strategy may include a comprehensive public education campaign.

The strategy might also include services for those living with AIDS in northern and rural communities, enabling aboriginal people to stay closer to their homes, elders, and alternative medicine and traditional healing practices.

This campaign would be a welcome introduction as in some rural and northern areas, culturally specific counseling for HIV and AIDS is practically non-existent.

This is not the first time a program to combat AIDS has been introduced in Manitoba. In 1998, the Tory government first broached an AIDS prevention strategy, but governmental interest disappeared when the Tories lost the election to the current New Democrat Party government the following year.

“We’re trying to get people re-engaged and interested again,” said Jon Stinson, a special consultant on HIV and AIDS for Manitoba Health.

Stinson predicts that the implementation of the strategy could take some time because “if we are going to build something worthwhile, all the necessary players need to agree with what’s going on.”

He also points out that it took roughly three years for British Columbia to implement an AIDS strategy of its own.

“There has never been a prevention program targeting the aboriginal people that has been funded by the province yet, and that does exist in other provinces, but not in Manitoba,” said Mcleod.

“I think we need to have a collaboration across the jurisdictions which would include First Nations, Metis and urban aboriginal people so that there could be a support from each of these three leading bodies, as well as a province-wide prevention program.”

The government has already taken steps to include such a collaboration occurs. Consultations have taken place between Manitoba Health, several AIDS organizations and First Nations and Metis representatives to discuss what direction they should take.

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