The Northwestern Health Unit is warning the public about a spike in HIV in the community, mostly due to residents sharing drug equipment and taking part in unprotected sex.

During the City of Kenora’s Emergency Council meeting on Downtown Safety over the holidays, local Physician Johnny Grek warned that Kenora is seeing increasing rates of HIV and AIDS in Kenora’s transient population with 15 cases in the last 9 months, after no cases in the city for over 8 years.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system and originated from a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa in the late 1800s. It can be controlled with treatment, but if left alone, HIV can lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, known as AIDS.

While Kenora is definitely seeing a spike in HIV cases, Dr. Kit Young Hoon, Medical Officer of Health with the NWHU, is disputing Grek’s numbers.

The health unit says in 2022, there were 9 confirmed cases of HIV reported in Kenora, not 15. They add that there were 8 confirmed cases of the virus between 2013 and 2021, and testing and contact management are ongoing to monitor for any new cases in the community.

The NWHU says HIV can be spread through certain bodily fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal and anal fluids – but it cannot be spread through casual contact such as hugging or kissing, or through touching common surfaces such as those found in public washrooms.

Kit Young Hoon says the primary risk factors noted in Kenora’s spike of new cases include the sharing of needles and drug preparation equipment, as well as unprotected sex.

“So far, we are seeing cases that fit into these risk categories. With the long-standing higher rates of HIV in Manitoba and Thunder Bay, we have been anticipating an increase in HIV cases for over a decade,” Young Hoon explains.

“Key prevention strategies include consistent and proper condom use, as well as ensuring single use and no sharing of needles and drug preparation equipment,” she adds.

The CDC says some people have no symptoms after an HIV infection, but most will have flu-like symptoms for a few days within 2 to 4 weeks after infection. Symptoms can include a sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, night sweats, mouth ulcers, chills, fever, muscle aches, a rash and fatigue.

The NWHU says those who may be at risk should seek confidential, free testing from the NWHU or their healthcare provider immediately.

In February of 2022, the NWHU warned the public about a spike in syphilis rates in the region – explaining that rates have been steadily rising since 2018 but skyrocketed in 2020 as residents were forced to lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NWHU says those who have had unprotected sex with new or multiple partners should also access testing as soon as they’re able to.