After seeing an incredible rise in HIV reports from Saskatchewan back in 2016, showing that almost 80% of the people infected were indigenous, researchers started questioning why people were getting sick so quickly.
Zabrina Brumme and her colleagues at the Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, began her research on this matter. She is the lead author of the study which was recently published in the scientific journal Aids, stating the premise of her research:
“Some of our physician colleagues in Saskatchewan started to report that they were seeing cases of people being infected with HIV and getting very sick, very quickly. It was almost as if there might have been something particularly nastier about the virus.”
According to previous research done in Japan, some resistant strains fo the virus adapted to evade the immune response of the host, so researchers in Canada wondered if this was the case for the Saskatchewan population.
The Research Started With Comparison of Thousands of HIV Sequences
The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/Aids Lab began to preform genotyping the HIV since 1998. Researchers at the laboratory compared over 2,300 HIV sequences from Saskatchewan with other sequences from Canada and the US.
They discovered that there were 70 mutations, with over 98% of HIV sequences from Saskatchewan having at least a major mutation that made them resistant to the immune system.
Usually, HIV strains can adapt to the global host population, but it happens slowly. However, in this case, it was happening at a worrying speed, explained Brumme:
“What has happened is that HIV has adapted quite quickly as it has been transmitted throughout the communities of people.”
The mutations won’t make the virus easily transmissible, but it will make the disease progress faster if not treated. Brumme explained that the nastier strain of virus can affect anyone from Saskatchewan, not just indigenous populations:
“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.”
There is a Treatment for This HIV Strain
But there is good news, says Jeffrey Joy, who is a researcher at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/Aids:
“If people get on treatment, they’re going to have the same outcome as anyone else. And have the secondary benefit of not passing those strains on to other people.”
The next step researchers want to take is to make the Saskatchewan population aware of the fact that HIV strains in that province are dangerous and to encourage testing and treatment.
The director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/Aids, Julio Montaner, hopes that the news will “add further urgency to addressing the Saskatchewan epidemic, in which the infection burden is concentrated among the most marginalised.”
Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere