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Dal Health wants easier testing as HIV on rise in N.S.

Last October, the Nova Scotia Health Authority found an increase in newly diagnosed cases of HIV in the province. Since then, students at Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College may have noticed posters around campus warning of these findings.

The NSHA expects 15-20 new cases of HIV per year in Nova Scotia. By August 2022, they had already seen 20-25 new cases. In a news release from Oct. 3, Public Health said they use contact tracing to inform of potential exposures, but many who test positive wish to remain anonymous. The ultimate motive for the release? Get tested, regularly.

The posters popped up earlier this year, reading “HIV is on the rise. Do you know your status?” 

Dalhousie’s health promotion team is behind the posters. They saw the increase in HIV cases and took the news as an opportunity to further dialogue about regular testing on campus.

 “I think it’s important that students know that HIV is on the rise, I feel like it might be talked about a lot more in generations past,” said Jonnie-Lyn Baron, manager of the university’s student health promotions. “HIV doesn’t discriminate on your sex or your gender, your sexual identity or your preferences. It really can affect anybody.”

The health promotions team has been running pop-up STI screening clinics throughout the school year across campus. 

“The point of the screening clinics is just to meet students where they are at,” said Baron. “Sometimes, it can be nerve-racking for students to go get tested or even book an appointment to go into the center.”

The screening clinics offer low-barrier testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Normally, students would have to make an appointment with a Dal Health nurse. The pop-up screening clinics offer a more accessible and approachable alternative.

Testing for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, syphilis and HIV require a blood requisition. Dal Health can provide these forms and direct students to blood requisition clinics around Halifax. The health promotions team uses the pop-up screening clinics as a chance to help students navigate the process for this kind of testing.

As a Dal student, Kate Mckesey said she didn’t understand the importance of regular testing. She sees a prevailing assumption in student culture that only certain people need to get tested. 

“Now I’m working in a role where I can help other people break down biases and stigmas that they might have themselves,” said Mckesey, now working as a health promotions coordinator at Dal. “Getting tested is for everyone, anyone who’s sexually active. And we are a safe and welcoming space for that.”

Mckesey and Baron hope they can dissolve the stigma that surrounds STI testing. They hope their consistent presence around campus — readily available to talk about all things STI prevention and safety — can make students feel more comfortable to have these conversations amongst themselves.

“As a Black individual, I do find that sometimes going to the doctor can be a scary thing,” said Mckesey. In her work, she acknowledged various experiences that may make people feel uncomfortable or unsafe in clinical environments. “I hope that we’re able to represent the student body in what we bring to the clinics, and that makes it more comfortable for students.”

The next STI screening clinic will take place on March 8 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Melda Murray Student Center on Sexton Campus. 

Photo: Angela Capobianco

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