COVID-19 lockdown linked to HIV outbreak among some drug users, according to study | Pro IQRA News

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Declines in access to HIV services during early COVID-19 lockdowns in British Columbia were linked to a “sharp increase” in HIV transmission among some drug users, a new study says.

While reduced social interaction during the March-May 2020 lockdown may have tried to reduce HIV transmission, it may not have “overcome” the increase caused by reduced access to services, a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia said.

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

The overall number of new HIV diagnoses in BC has continued to decline for decades. But Dr Jeffrey Joy, lead author of the report published on Friday, said he had found a “surprising” increase in transmission among some drug users during the lockdown.

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Transmission rates for such people had previously been fairly stable for about a decade, Joy said.

“That’s because treatment and prevention services have really good penetration in this population,” he said.

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Joy said BC was a global leader in monitoring the outbreak, meaning the results could be applied elsewhere.

“We’re in a unique position to find these things,” he said. “The reason I think it’s important to do this research and get it out there (is because) it’s probably happening everywhere, but other places don’t track the HIV epidemic the way we do.”

Rachel Miller, co-author of the report, said health authorities should consider innovative solutions so that “actions taken to address one health crisis do not inadvertently exacerbate another.”

“These services are the frontline defense in the fight against HIV/AIDS. “Many of them have experienced outages, shutdowns, capacity constraints and other issues,” Miller said in a press release.

“Maintaining access to and linkage to HIV services is absolutely critical to preventing regression and unnecessary harm in controlling the epidemic.”

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

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The rise among “selected groups” can be attributed to a combination of factors, housing instability and declining confidence, that raise barriers for many people who would normally receive HIV services, the researchers said.

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.

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

“The take home message here is that we need to support really vulnerable populations in times of crisis and public health emergencies or other crises, not less, but more,” he said.

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

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

© 2022 The Canadian Press


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