Aboriginal AIDS activists in Canada say they are trying to lower the high rate of HIV infections among First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

The Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network is launching a national awareness campaign in Winnipeg on Saturday — to coincide with World AIDS Day — with the goal of reducing the number of new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths.

"We need to say to our own community, 'Listen to the messages about HIV and AIDS. Protect yourself. Go get a test if you put yourself at risk,'" said Art Zoccole, president of the network's board.

"These are our future generations, and there is a responsibility of us in the aboriginal community to take care of each other and [get] everybody involved."

While First Nations, Métis and Inuit people represent 3.8 per cent of Canada's population, they account for 7.5 per cent of Canadians living with HIV, according to 2006 census figures.

As well, aboriginal people accounted for 12.5 per cent of all new HIV infections in Canada in 2008, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

That all means the HIV infection rate for aboriginal Canadians was 3.6 times higher than the rate for other Canadians in 2008.

The federal health agency says injection drug use is the main way aboriginal people get exposed to HIV, and the number of cases continues to rise, especially among women.

Risky lifestyles

Research is underway to find out why the infection rate is so high, but there is concern that an alarming number of aboriginal Canadians are engaging in risky lifestyles.

The agency has found that aboriginal HIV cases attributed to injected drug use has gone up to more than 50 per cent in the period spanning 2001 to 2008 from 18 per cent before 1995.

Brenda Pelletier, 60, of Winnipeg said she contracted HIV 12 years ago after she shared drug paraphernalia with a friend who she knew was HIV-positive.

"I didn't think anything of it — like, you know, sharing — because when they said, 'Use clean needles,' I just thought, 'Hmm, OK, clean needle, I got one,'" she recalled. "Four days after that, my friend died."

Pelletier said since she was diagnosed with HIV, she has been in and out of the hospital with pneumonia, tuberculosis and other ailments.

Zoccole said more education is needed on how the virus is contracted, how people can protect themselves, and how people should get tested.

The theme of the network's Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week campaign this year is "Getting to Zero," which means zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero cases of discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS.

Workshops on aboriginal HIV and AIDS issues will be held in Halifax, Regina, Toronto, Iqaluit and Victoria in the coming days as part of the campaign.

Ottawa investing in programs

Zoccole, who has had HIV for eight years and currently heads up the Toronto-based group Two-Spirited People of the First Nations, said there are very few agencies that provide services for HIV-positive aboriginal people in large cites.

There are even fewer resources for those in small and remote First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, he added.

"It's concerning," said federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

Aglukkaq said the federal government is investing in research, education and treatment programs, including a Health Canada project to develop aboriginal-language terminology concerning HIV and AIDS.

"We have translated a number of terms to the appropriate language of the aboriginal population," she said.

Aglukkaq said while the availability of HIV- and AIDS-related services in remote communities is an issue, there are hospitals in a number of areas that can provide treatment.

"Education is fundamental in getting to the bottom of this, and we have to work in partnership with the community to educate young people," she said. "But it has to be done in partnership with the community."

Stigma remains in some communities

But Zoccole said sometimes those very communities are part of the problem.

"There's still stigma and discrimination. So when that happens, sometimes, the result is that the person living with HIV and AIDS needs to move and relocate to a place that's safe for them," he said.

"They almost get ostracized from their communities, and it's very unfortunate … Aboriginal people need to take a greater stand against, you know, this kind of discrimination that we're doing to our own family and in our own community. It's not right."

Pelletier said her own family has withdrawn from her, with some members even changing their phone numbers.

"They dumped me. They didn't want nothing to do with me," she said. "You feel like you're not good enough to be with people, unless they are HIV [positive] too."

But Pelletier said she is trying to be part of the solution by taking part in a speaking tour organized by a non-profit aboriginal service agency in Winnipeg.

"I go into communities and I talk and I'll tell them how I got it, if they ask," she said. "I hope that they have listened."

Pelletier and others say the best way to stem the rise in HIV and AIDS cases among aboriginal people is by teaching young people — in a culturally appropriate way — how to protect themselves.

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  • 1. Most Don't Have Their Infection Under Control

    Only one quarter of the 1.1 million <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/2012/Stages-of-CareFactSheet-508.pdf">people with HIV</a> have their <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/27/hiv-under-control-1-in-4_n_1711260.html">condition under control</a>, where "under control" means the virus has been suppressed, according to a report released this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Only if we get <a href="http://www.philly.com/philly/health/HealthDay667108_20120727_Only_1_in_4_Americans_With_HIV_Has_Virus_Under_Control__CDC.html">everyone under regular care</a> for HIV/AIDS can we recognize the full benefits of treatment and prevention," Irene Hall, an epidemiologist at the CDC and one of the authors of the report, told HealthDay. <em><strong>CORRECTION</strong>: The first sentence has been reworded to more accurately reflect the number of people with HIV.</em>

  • 2. Bone Marrow Transplants Could Play A Part In Being HIV-Free

    Two men with HIV and cancer no longer have <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/26/hiv-free-men-bone-marrow-transplants_n_1707505.html">detectable blood levels of the virus</a> after receiving bone marrow transplants for their cancers, news outlets reported this year. Doctors were unable to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/26/hiv-free-men-bone-marrow-transplants_n_1707505.html">find any traces of HIV</a> in the men's cells after they received the bone marrow transplants while also being treated with antiretrovirals. The finding "suggests that under the <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/07/26/two-more-patients-hiv-free-after-bone-marrow-transplants/">cover of anti-retroviral therapy</a>, the cells that repopulated the patient's immune system appear to be protected from becoming re-infected with HIV," Dr. Timothy Henrich, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, told ABC News. However, the Boston Globe pointed out that it's still too soon to say that these men have been<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/26/hiv-free-men-bone-marrow-transplants_n_1707505.html"> full-on <em>cured</em></a> of HIV, since they are still on the anti-retrovirals. There's no firm word on whether they will go off of the medication.

  • 3. No-Cost HIV Treatment Could Cut New Infection Rates

    New <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/11/27/free-hiv-drugs-decrease-infection-bc_n_2200393.html">HIV infection rates</a> can be dramatically lowered by making antiretroviral drugs free, a study from Canadian researchers found. The Canadian Press reported on the study, conducted by B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS researchers, which showed that British Columbia -- a province that offers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/11/27/free-hiv-drugs-decrease-infection-bc_n_2200393.html">free access to antiretroviral therapy</a> -- had the lowest rate of new HIV infections over a more-than-10-year period, compared with Ontairio and Quebec.

  • 4. Many Young People Don't Know Their HIV Status

    More than half of HIV-infected young people are <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/hiv-youths-infected-aids-young-people_n_2198629.html">unaware that they have the virus</a>, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. "Given everything we know about HIV and how to prevent it in 30 years of fighting the disease, it's just unacceptable that young people are <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/hiv-youths-infected-aids-young-people_n_2198629.html">becoming infected at such high rates</a>," Reuters reported CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden saying. The report also showed that for young people, 72 percent of the new HIV infections were in men who have sex with men, while almost 50 percent were in young, African-American males, Reuters reported. These figures are based on 2010 data.

  • 5. More People Are Living With HIV Than 10 Years Ago

    The number of people <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/hiv-aids-numbers-statistics-worldwide_n_1682936.html">living with HIV</a> has increased by 18 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to a report released this year from the United Nations Programme on AIDS. An estimated 34.2 million people around the world are living with HIV. The report also showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/hiv-aids-numbers-statistics-worldwide_n_1682936.html">deaths from AIDS </a>have <em>dropped</em>, from 2.3 million in 2005-2006 to 1.7 million in 2011, Reuters reported.

  • 6. The Cost Of HIV Drugs Is Decreasing

    According to the same United Nations report, costs for the cheapest UN-recommended <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/hiv-aids-numbers-statistics-worldwide_n_1682936.html">antiretroviral therapy drugs</a> have also decreased over the past 10 years, Reuters reported. A year's worth of the drugs used to cost $10,000 in 2000 for one person; now, it costs $100 a year.

  • 7. HIV Treatment Truvada Can Also Be Used As A Preventive Measure

    The Food and Drug Administration this year officially approved the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/09/truvada-heterosexuals-aids-hiv-prevention-pill_n_1760542.html">drug Truvada</a> -- which has been used since 2004 as a treatment for HIV -- to be sold as a preventive measure for people who don't have the infection, but are at high risk for it. The FDA said that the pill should be considered for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/09/truvada-heterosexuals-aids-hiv-prevention-pill_n_1760542.html">preventive use</a> not only by gay or bisexual men who are at high risk for HIV, but also heterosexual men and women who may also face HIV risks, the Associated Press reported. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/09/truvada-heterosexuals-aids-hiv-prevention-pill_n_1760542.html">Heterosexual men and women</a> make up more than one-fourth of new cases of HIV, and "that's not a portion of the epidemic we want to ignore," the CDC's Dr. Dawn Smith, who was the lead author of the new recommendations, told the Associated Press. The FDA also approved a new drug this year, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/27/stribild-hiv-treatment-fda_n_1834734.html">Stribild</a>, to treat HIV, Reuters reported.

  • 8. Engineered Stem Cells Could Play A Part In Fighting HIV

    In findings published this year in the journal <em>PLoS Pathogens</em>, scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles found that it's possible to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/16/stem-cell-aids-hiv-study-ucla_n_1428660.html">genetically engineer stem cells</a> to attack living HIV-infected cells in mice. While the study was only for "proof-of-principle," it "lays the groundwork for the potential use of this type of an approach in combating HIV infection in infected individuals, in hopes of eradicating the virus from the body," study researcher Dr. Scott G. Kitchen, an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA, said in a statement.

  • 9. Pretty Much Everyone Should Be Screened For HIV

    People should be screened for HIV even if they're not at high risk of contracting the infection, according to draft recommendations released just last month by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The recommendations would mean that everyone between the ages of 15 and 65 should be <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/19/routine-hiv-screening-us-preventive-services-task-force-uspstf_n_2161090.html">screened for HIV</a>, even if they're not at high risk for it, Reuters reported. "The prior recommendations were for screening high-risk adults and adolescents," Dr. Douglas Owens, a member of the USPSTF task force and a Stanford University medical professor, told Reuters. "The current recommendation is for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/19/routine-hiv-screening-us-preventive-services-task-force-uspstf_n_2161090.html">screening everyone</a>, regardless of their risk."

  • 10. People Should Be Treated With Antiretrovirals As Soon As They're Diagnosed WIth HIV

    <em>All</em> HIV patients should be <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2012/07/23/new-advice-calls-for-putting-all-hiv-patients-on-drug-treatment/">treated immediately with antiretrovirals</a>, according to new guidelines issued this year from a panel of the International Antiviral Society-USA, as reported by <em>TIME</em>. The recommendations are counter to previous guidelines, which said that antiretrovirals should only be used if the CD4 count -- a measure of immune cells in a person's body -- becomes less than 350 cells for every mm3 of blood.

  • Growing Up with HIV

    During the AIDS 2012 conference, Christina Rodriguez talks about growing up with HIV.