B.C. organization sorry for not telling Indigenous people about free HIV drug

We let Indigenous people down. Again.

These words appear in the first paragraph of a letter from Vancouver health organization Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) containing a public apology directed at First Nations people in B.C.

The centre is acknowledging it did not do enough to let Indigenous people know they had free access for years to a drug that can prevent the spread of HIV.

Jody Jollimore, executive director of CBRC, which promotes the health of gay men and disseminates information about HIV, wrote the letter, which was published on the organization’s website on Dec. 4.

In his letter, Jollimore says Non-Insured Health Benefits, the federal program which provides medical coverage for Indigenous people in Canada, has covered the cost of the preventative drug PrEP, also known as pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment, since 2016, two years before it was covered by provincial medical, for any British Columbian at high risk of contracting the virus.

According to the First Nations Health Authority, which delivers health care to B.C. First Nations, Indigenous people in the province had access to Truvada, the brand name version of the drug , since 2013.

The problem was many Indigenous people had no idea.

Truth and reconciliation is about recognizing and acknowledging past mistakes,” said Jollimore in an interview on CBC’s The Early Edition Thursday. “This missed opportunity was underscored for us and we wanted to acknowledge and address that moving forward.”

The organization has now hired an Indigenous health promotion lead to help with its programming and ensure Indigenous health needs are being met.

System breakdown

According to the most recent HIV statistics from the BC Centre for Disease Control, rates in both First Nations women and men exceed provincial rates (5.4 versus 0.6 per 100,000 population for women and 15.2 versus 6.9 per 100,000 population for men in 2017).

Two-spirit organizer and HIV/AIDS activist Harlan Pruden said he appreciates the acknowledgement from CBRC it failed to recognize and promote PrEP but says no one individual or organization is to blame.

“We need to focus attention on the system,” said Pruden Thursday on CBC’s The Early Edition.

In 2018, Pruden told CBC there should have been promotional material displayed earlier in Indigenous communities or on social media, similar to how the province got the word out when universal access to the drug was made available that year.

Pruden said, in future,  Indigenous people need to be involved in all levels of discussion around prevention — from program development to implementation.

“We need the resources to sit at the table and to articulate and hold space,” said Pruden.


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