Every World AIDS Day, public health officials in Saskatchewan release numbers of new HIV cases in the province.
Historically the data is from the previous year, but that is slowly changing. This year, the Saskatoon Health Region talked about 2014 information, but also added preliminary numbers from up to Nov. 23, 2015 as well.
Dr. Johnmark Opondo, Saskatoon’s deputy medical health officer, said often they have had the numbers for months before they are released. If they wait until the end of the year, he said, “lots of things have happened”.
“Sometimes I think it is worth telling the community if we are seeing trends that are important. The other way of that doing that is declaring an outbreak,” he said.
“Trends that are relevant, where I’m asking people to make changes, I just think it’s much more compelling if it’s closer in time, so that they can actually see and the numbers sort of jive with the experience that they are seeing in community.”
It makes particular sense this year, Opondo explained. There were 33 new HIV cases in the region in 2014, but 45 already in 2015.
“After almost five consecutive years of almost consistent decline, we suddenly see a spike and it’s important to explain what that spike means,” he said.
After a syphilis outbreak earlier this year among men who have sex with men, the health region focused on the group and offered HIV testing. Syphilis and HIV are transmitted the same way, so a number of new HIV cases were discovered.
The data is important because it’s how public health manages their work flow.
“We like to say we practice from an evidenced-based, that we’ve seen what’s going on and we make an analysis and an interpretation of what is the best course of action given what we are witnessing.”
Historically, the HIV epidemic in Saskatchewan was driven by intravenous drug use. Because people were sharing needles, education and testing campaigns largely focused on those people.
Provincial 2014 numbers show another drop in new HIV cases. Dr. Denise Werker, the provincial deputy chief medical health officer, said it is hard to predict what will happen in 2015, but preliminary numbers show a slight increase particularly in urban areas.
She said waiting a year to release numbers is something under discussion.
“I think that is something we have acknowledged, is that we need to have more timely information on a more regular basis, even if that information is preliminary, to help keep everybody informed in terms of what’s going on … there’s been an internal discussion about that, about how best to move forward with that.”
Still, overall numbers of new cases are down from five years ago, which Werker said she would like to attribute to increased testing and education.
“There is certainly a sense of positivity that there have been improvements, but I think there is also a recognition that there is a lot more that needs to get done. We can’t afford to rest on our laurels, there is just a whole lot of work to be done and we acknowledge that,” she said.
Opondo agrees, adding that even though the provincial HIV strategy came to an end in 2014, the effect continues today.
“It’s actually the work of the strategy that’s helping us uncover some of these areas, which we may not have otherwise known,” he said.