Two new, "nastier" HIV strains found among indigenous drug-users in Canada may signal mutation shift in deadly virus
Mutated strains circulating in Saskatchewan, where nearly 80 percent of infected are indigenous, may lead to faster development of AIDS related illnesses, a study has shown
Mutated strains of HIV circulating in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan are leading to faster-developing AIDS-related illnesses in the Indigenous population, a new study has shown.
After hearing anecdotal evidence from people in Saskatchewan, where HIV rates rank among the highest in North America, scientists from Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University decided to investigate.
"Physicians were saying, 'There's something going on here that isn't right, people are getting sick very, very fast,'" Zabrina Brumme, lead author of the study, told the CBC adding, that it is almost as if the virus was "nastier."
The findings, published in the scientific journal AIDS, looked closely at Saskatchewan, where HIV rates in 2016 exceeded the national average by tenfold in some places. The researchers analyzed 70 mutations and discovered that more than 98 percent of HIV sequences collected in the area recently had at least one major immune-resistant mutation. The mutations do not make the virus more transmissible but instead influence how quickly the disease progresses if it is left untreated.
The virus disproportionately affects the indigenous population, with about 80 percent of those infected in the province being indigenous. However, Brumme warned that these HIV strains in Saskatchewan have the potential to cause more rapidly developing illnesses in all people, regardless of ethnic background. Previous research in Japan explained a similar phenomenon by pointing to resistant strains that had adapted to evade host immune responses.
“This isn’t a health issue restricted to a specific group of people. This is news that there’s a pathogen. Strains are nastier in this location,” she said. However concerning the news may be, HIV treatment is fully active against these strains. Jeffrey Joy, a researcher with the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, told The Guardian; “If people get on treatment, they’re going to have the same outcome as anyone else,” he said. “And have the secondary benefit of not passing those strains on to other people.”
The concern about HIV rates in Saskatchewan had long been addressed since the condition has mirrored those of some developing countries.“Most of those people are indigenous people and most of them are getting HIV through injection drug use,” Trevor Stratton of the Canadian Aboriginal Aids Network told the Guardian last year. “Which is tied to trauma, residential school system and that whole history we have in Canada.”
Julio Montaner, the director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/Aids, hopes the findings will be a call for action as he told the publication that these "findings add further urgency to addressing the Saskatchewan epidemic, in which the infection burden is concentrated among the most marginalised,” he said in a statement.
After the release of their findings, the researchers hope to go back to the Canadian province to encourage testing for early detection and treatment