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Nova Scotia has posted a significant increase in the number of new HIV infections so far this year, prompting the province’s Health Department to issue an urgent advisory warning doctors and nurses of the sudden spike in cases of the communicable disease.

In the first six months of 2018, the province recorded approximately 16 new cases of HIV – a number usually seen over the course of a year.

“The concern is that we’ve already reached what we’d expect for an entire year after six months,” Dr. Trevor Arnason, medical officer of health with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said in an interview Thursday.

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“We’re heading towards a doubling of the number of reports over the year.”

It’s unclear what has caused the number of newly diagnosed HIV cases to rise, though Arnason said it appears certain individuals acquired HIV in the “very recent past.”

“We’re trying to make health care providers aware that we’re seeing more cases and they should look for the signs and symptoms and get people tested,” he said.

The advisory sent to doctors and nurses last week said up to 90 per cent of people infected with HIV will develop a fever within four to eight weeks after exposure to the virus.

It said the most commonly reported risk factors were men who have sex with men or people who inject drugs.

HIV – the Human Immunodeficiency Virus – is a blood-borne disease that can be spread through sexual activity or by sharing a needle. It can eventually lead to AIDS.

It was once considered a death sentence, but there are now treatments that can greatly reduce the virus.

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Dena Simon, executive director of the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia, said younger generations that didn’t experience the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s may not understand the potential severity of the disease.

“Managing HIV now is a very different scenario than it was back then,” she said. “Today, it’s a chronic, manageable disease and you can have pretty much a normal life.”

Simon added: “But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent about it because it’s still something that you have to manage, and we don’t want it being spread.”

Advocates of a preventative medication called pre-exposure prophylaxis say it could drastically reduce the transmission of HIV if it were publicly funded.

“This is a pill that you take every day – when you and your doctor decide you might be at risk for HIV – and it’s 99 per cent effective at preventing HIV,” said Matthew Numer, assistant professor in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“If your body is exposed to HIV, you won’t contract it.”

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British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, and Saskatchewan publicly fund pre-exposure prophylaxis – often referred to as PrEP.

A spokeswoman for Nova Scotia’s Health Department said the province is “actively working on a solution to expand access to PrEP for Nova Scotians at high-risk for HIV infection.”

Numer, also the chairman of the PrEP Action Committee in Nova Scotia, said jurisdictions that have publicly funded the drug have reported a 40 per cent decrease in new HIV cases – compared to Nova Scotia’s 100 per cent increase so far in 2018.

Simon said there are health and economic arguments to support funding pre-exposure prophylaxis.

“This is a public health issue and we know that HIV can spread, so we need to stem that tide,” she said.

“The other side of that is an economic argument. It’s much more cost-effective to fund the preventative measure than to support and fund the lifelong treatment measures.”

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About 75,000 people in Canada have HIV, according to the Canadian AIDS Society.

One in five HIV-positive Canadians are not aware of their status, which makes the possibility of transmitting the virus much more likely, the society said in a press release last month.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said there were 2,344 new HIV infections in Canada in 2016, an 11.6 per cent increase from 2015.

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