Halifax HIV outbreak sparks discussions around value of community-based testing

Medical professionals are collaborating with those who work on the frontlines of harm reduction to try and stop the rising rates of HIV infections in Halifax.

“We recognize that not everyone who needs to get tested for HIV is getting tested and therefore we thought, ‘Well, let’s go to the community where we know there are a lot more HIV cases right now and see if we can do something that would give people their test results and their status,” said Dr. Lisa Barret, an infectious disease physician who runs the HIV clinic in Halifax.

Halifax has been experiencing an outbreak of HIV since the summer.

In July, there were 16 confirmed cases. Now there are 25.

The increasing rate of infections has been specifically linked to people who use intravenous drugs and other drug paraphernalia.

Dr. Barrett says while the first step to stopping the spread of HIV is for people to get tested, she recognizes that not everyone has access to testing. There may be other issues they’re dealing with, such as lack of housing, abusive relationships or access to healthcare.

“If you’re somebody who can get a blood test easily and get your results a week later from your doctor, that’s amazing. Not everyone in the world can do that,” she said.

Mainline Needle Exchange is a harm reduction agency that provides people with substance-use issues and addiction access to resources and clean drug use supplies.

Dr. Barrett recently collaborated with the community-based organization to encourage clients to get tested.

Fifteen people were tested during the clinic at Mainline and Dr. Barrett is currently conducting a research project to determine if community-based testing clinics are welcomed and effective.

Meanwhile, harm reduction workers are raising awareness about the HIV outbreak with the people who use their services.

“We’ve heard about it, we’ve put posters up about it and encouraging people who walk through the door to get tested. My personal belief is that if you feel as though you might have been in a situation where you might have come in contact with HIV, I encourage people to get tested,” said John Arenburg, an outreach worker with Mainline Needle Exchange.

Work is underway to host more community-testing clinics at the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre in the coming weeks.

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