‘Long overdue’: Yukon government to cover HIV medication

The territorial government says it will be covering the costs of pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment (PrEP) for at-risk people starting in mid-January. (CBC)
The Yukon government has announced that it is going to start providing coverage for a prescription drug that reduces the risk of people contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Starting in mid-January the territorial government says it will cover the cost of the medication, known as a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

The PrEP medication will be available to people at-risk of contracting HIV. The daily pill lowers the chance of individuals getting HIV by up to 90 per cent.

It has proven especially beneficial for groups at high-risk of acquiring the virus, but a lack of awareness and a stigma attached to the drug, topped by its extraordinary price of almost $1,000 a month, it has left many who want access to it in the dark.

“Providing coverage for this medication will ensure at-risk Yukoners have access to this important preventative drug. We know HIV is more prevalent in vulnerable populations, and these populations often don’t have coverage through other means. It is important to ensure Yukoners who need access to this medication can receive it,” says the release.

The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates as of 2018 there were an estimated 62,050 people living with HIV in Canada.

‘Destigmatizing sexual health’

Joe Wickenhauser, executive director of the Yukon Pride Centre, said the coverage is an important signal from the territorial government that they are taking sexual health seriously, “in the same way that they might treat any of our other health needs.”

“I was really thrilled to hear that they were going to cover PrEP. It’s one of those things that I think can make a huge difference in people’s lives both in terms of their direct health as well as one of those pieces that helps people with their mental health as well.”

Along with other at-risk groups, HIV has historically impacted members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“For the Pride Centre, we’re looking forward to a future where HIV/AIDS doesn’t have the same stigma that it once did. And I think that this PrEP coverage will help with that.”

Wickenhauser said he also thinks having the medication available will take some worry out of the decision making that people make around their sexual health.

“Once we can start destigmatizing sexual health, we’re going to see a lot better response from community members in terms of taking care of that sexual health and not being afraid to reach out and access those supports. Because often stigma is one of the barriers that people face.”

‘Long overdue in this territory’

Brontë Renwick-Shields, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions Centre, says one of the other major barriers to accessing the medication is the high cost and it can become an “economic burden”.

Renwick-Shields said she hopes that having increased access to the medication will allow for more awareness.

“It’s very exciting to see it happen here. It’s very needed. It’s a wonderful harm reduction and HIV-prevention tool that we now have in our toolbox,” she said.

“I think it’s long overdue in this territory. We’ve seen this coverage in many places across the country, in almost all provinces.”

An individual must be confirmed to be HIV negative before beginning the medication, and must be tested every three months while taking the medication according to the government release.

The territorial government says Yukoners can receive the prescription from their regular health care provider, and receive the medication and renewals through the Sexual Health Clinic or their community health centre.

Renwick-Shields said the organization is looking forward to learning more information from the territorial government about how the medication will be accessed and who will be eligible.

The territorial government was not immediately available to provide further details on eligibility and access to the medication once it is covered.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Travel ‘bubble’ in northern Canada between N.W.T. and Nunavut suspended until further notice, CBC News

Denmark: Faroe Islands institutes new COVID-19 recommendations until the end of 2020, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: New COVID-19 restrictions for Iceland’s schools and universities, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sweden’s northernmost county among regions to introduce stricter COVID-19 recommendations, Radio Sweden

United States: After early containment success, there’s now rapid COVID-19 spread in rural Alaska, including the Arctic, Alaska Public Media

Danielle d'Entremont, CBC North

For more news from northern Canada visit CBC News.

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