The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Simon Fraser University conducted research in response to reports in Saskatchewan of unusually rapid progression of HIV to AIDS-defining illnesses in the absence of treatment — revealing genetic mutations in HIV strains in that province.
The study, presented July 26 at the 2018 AIDS Conference in Amsterdam and published in the scientific journal AIDS, shows that HIV strains circulating in Saskatchewan have adapted to evade host immune responses. These HIV strains are being commonly transmitted and, if the resulting HIV infections are left untreated, rapid progress to AIDS-related illnesses may happen.
Researchers on the study — from the BC-CfE, SFU and the Public Health Agency of Canada, in partnership with Saskatchewan physician-researchers and with funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — were startled at the prevalence of immune resistance mutations. One key mutation was found in more than 80% of Saskatchewan HIV strains, compared with only about 25% of HIV strains found elsewhere in North America. The pervasiveness of such mutations is increasing over time. More than 98% of the HIV sequences collected in Saskatchewan most recently (between 2015 and 2016) harboured at least one major immune resistance mutation.
HIV antiretroviral treatment, however, works equally effectively against immune-resistant HIV strains.
In the 2018-19 budget, the Government of Saskatchewan announced an additional $600,000 investment to provide universal drug coverage for HIV medications, including antiretroviral therapy and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
“The findings of this study are concerning but the good news is, once people get tested, we can get them on life-saving treatment immediately,” said Dr. Zabrina Brumme, Research Scientist with the BC-CfE, Associate Professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences and the lead author on the study. “It is critical for individuals to take action to protect their health, get tested for HIV and access HIV care and treatment immediately following a diagnosis.”
This study is significant as HIV incidence rates in Saskatchewan are among the highest in North America, with 2016 rates in some regions more than ten times the national average.
Saskatchewan’s HIV epidemic is also unique in that nearly 80% of infected persons self-identify as having Indigenous ancestry.
This article was adapted from a BC-CfE news release. Click here to read the release in its entirety.