Raising AIDS awareness among Inuit remains key
“This could become an epidemic if we’re not proactive and educating”
December 1 is World AIDS Day, and it also marks the start of Aboriginal AIDS Awareness week in Canada. For the Pauktuutit national Inuit Women’s association, AIDS prevention is an ongoing campaign.
“It’s always about education and awareness,” said Elisapie Sheutiapik, the president of Pauktuutit, who will help launch Aboriginal AIDS Awareness week at a December 1 event in Ottawa. “This could become an epidemic if we’re not proactive and educating.”
Pauktuutit, which first received money in 1999 from Health Canada for AIDS prevention work, wants to keep AIDS from spreading into Inuit communities across Canada’s North.
AIDS, or “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome,” weakens the body’s immune system so that is unable to defend itself from disease, and, despite recent advances in treatment, proves fatal to people who are infected.
According to 2010 figures from the Public Health Agency of Canada, there have been 22 AIDS case reports among Inuit to date. Of these cases, seven contracted AIDS through intravenous drug use and heterosexual sexual contact.
Women and youth 15 to 29 years were represented at levels much higher than those found among non-aboriginal women and youth. However, statistics on the number of Inuit who are diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, remain poorly communicated.
But Nunatsiaq News was unable to find similar statistics for Nunavut, although in Quebec and Nunavut routine screening for HIV occurs on an “opt-out” basis, which means that unless those those having their blood tests say no to having their blood tested for HIV, it will be tested.
The 2011 Nunavut Report on Comparable Health Indicators says in 2008, the rate of positive HIV tests in Nunavut was more than five times lower than the Canadian rate, although it doesn’t offer any numbers.
“We don’t have an accurate count and that is an issue,” Sheutiapik said. “Many Inuit are tested in the South and considered aboriginal. Many are still not comfortable getting tested at all.”
But some of the country’s highest rates of sexually transmitted infections - generally linked with higher HIV/AIDS levels, and teenage pregnancy rates - can be found in Canada’s Inuit regions, Sheutiapik said.
High STIs and teen pregnancy rates among Inuit would indicate “a grave potential for entry and spread of Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, the most deadly of STI’s, “ said a 2004 report, “Teenage pregnancy in Inuit communities,” prepared for Pauktuutit.
“Obviously, HIV is out there,” Sheutiapik said, but Inuit communities have come a long way in understanding the disease since the first Inuit case of HIV infection in the 1980s, Sheutiapik said.
Pauktuutit started doing AIDS outreach in the 1990s, with various efforts co-ordinated by the late Todd Armstrong. Known as the “sex guy” by the hundreds of youth he spoke to across the North, Armstrong launched an Inuit-focused awareness campaign for Pauktuutit.
These included HIV/AIDS walks, and the distribution “lifesaver” condoms whose covers, decorated with cute mottos like “no glove no love,” jokingly offered country-food “traditional flavours,” like muskox or seal.
“We’ve come a long way,” Sheutiapik said. “At one point, people didn’t want to be in the same room as someone who was HIV positive.”
Pauktuutit continues to reach out to Inuit youth and women and teach them about risk reduction, which includes using condoms during sex. The organization plans to visit Iqaluit soon and distribute condoms through the city’s health and youth centres. This year, Pauktuutit will also host the Tukisiviit health literacy forum which will address the need for consistent HIV and AIDS terminology in Inuktitut dialects.
For more information on AIDS prevention, visit the Pauktuutit website.
And for information on AIDS in Nunavut, visit www.irespectmyself.ca and if you want to speak to someone about AIDS, call The Nunavut AIDS Information Line at 1 (800) 661 0795 or 1 (867) 979 0520.