HIV spike among BC drug users associated with COVID-19 lockdown, research finds


VANCOUVER – Reduced access to HIV services during early COVID-19 lockdowns in British Columbia was associated with a « sharp increase » in HIV transmission among some drug users, a new study indicates. .

The study by researchers at the University of British Columbia indicates that while reducing social interactions during the March to May 2020 lockdown helped reduce HIV transmission, it may not have » offset » the increase caused by reduced access to services.

The study, published in Lancet Regional Health, found that fewer people started HIV antiretroviral therapy or undertook viral load testing under lockdown, while visits to overdose prevention services and consumption sites security have also decreased.

The total number of new HIV diagnoses in BC has continued to decline for decades.

But Dr Jeffrey Joy, lead author of the report released on Friday, said he found a « surprising » spike in transmission among some drug users during the lockdown.

Joy said transmission rates for these people had previously been fairly stable for about a decade.

« It’s because there has been a very good penetration of treatment and prevention services in these populations, » he said in an interview.

British Columbia was a world leader in outbreak surveillance, which means the findings are likely applicable elsewhere, Joy said.

« We’re uniquely positioned to find these things, » he said. « The reason I thought it was important to do this study and get it out there is (because) it’s probably happening everywhere, but other places don’t monitor their HIV epidemic the way they do. we. »

Rachel Miller, co-author of the report, said health authorities must consider innovative solutions so that measures « put in place to deal with one health crisis do not inadvertently exacerbate another ».

“These services are the frontline defense in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Many of them have faced disruptions, closures, capacity limits and other challenges,” Miller said in a press release.

« Maintaining access to and engagement with HIV services is absolutely critical to preventing regression in epidemic control and unnecessary harm. »

The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The researchers said the spike among the « selected groups » could be attributed to a combination of factors, including housing instability and loss of trust, increasing barriers for many people who normally receive HIV-related services.

British Columbia is set to become the first province in Canada to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs in January, after receiving a temporary federal exemption in May.

Joy said this decision, along with measures such as safe supply and safe needle exchanges, will make a difference in preventing similar problems in the future.

« The take-home message here is that in times of crisis and public health emergencies or other crises, we need to support these truly vulnerable populations more, not less, » he said.

“At a minimum, we need to give them continuity and access to the services they depend on. Otherwise, it only creates problems that can have long-term consequences.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 24, 2022.


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