More help for Caribbean and Black communities facing barriers to HIV testing and care

Wangari Tharao

The new HIV Self-Testing Community Outreach and Localized Outcomes (SOLO) Study will improve access to HIV testing for Greater Toronto Area (GTA) African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) communities, and collect data on the number of new HIV infections that are discovered. SOLO will also ensure connections to care for participants, and measure the degree to which the study’s approach reduces stigma and health inequities.

SOLO is led by Women’s Health in Women’s Hands (WHIWH) in partnership with REACH Nexus, part of the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital, and the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR).

ACB communities in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have been significantly impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. COVID-19 has also compounded the existing healthcare barriers these communities face, including health inequities, racism and stigma. On a global scale, UNAIDS has reported widespread disruptions to HIV testing and connections to care because of the pandemic.

While in-person visits and point-of-care testing for HIV remain limited (and in some cases nonexistent) due to COVID-19, according to the SOLO team it is imperative to find new ways to get HIV testing methods to Toronto-area ACB communities. SOLO aims to mitigate the risks created by COVID-19 and to ensure these communities get access to timely, unrestricted care to support their health and wellbeing.

“African, Caribbean and Black communities in Toronto are disproportionately affected by HIV, and because of health inequities, racism and stigma, they face significant barriers to accessing HIV testing and making connections with healthcare providers,” says Wangari Tharao, Program and Research Manager at WHIWH. “Women’s Health in Women’s Hands has a long history of focusing on the needs of ACB communities in Toronto and we will work to meet the needs of our communities with this project.”

“REACH Nexus has been working on many projects to increase access to and uptake of HIV self-testing for key populations in Canada. With SOLO, our support for its implementation and evaluation will help determine how effective this approach is for reaching ACB communities in the GTA who are at risk for acquiring HIV, and for connecting participants to prevention and care,” says Dr. Sean B. Rourke, Director of the REACH Nexus research group and Scientist with MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions.

“CANFAR’s latest strategic goal to end the HIV epidemic in Canada by the year 2025 will not be achieved unless we look at HIV in Canada through a holistic, comprehensive lens. HIV self-testing kits will significantly impact our ability to get testing technology into the hands of people disproportionately affected by HIV, including ACB communities,” says Alex Filiatrault, CEO of CANFAR. “COVID-19 has made this situation even worse as many testing sites have been effectively shut down, and health care access is even more limited. A number of HIV testing centres have reduced their operating hours while others have shut their doors until further notice.”

With the challenges COVID-19 has created for HIV testing access, HIV self-testing is more timely than ever, since it removes the barrier of requiring an in-person visit with a healthcare provider to know your status.

The SOLO study is aiming to reach 2500 eligible participants from ACB communities in the GTA. Visit the REACH Nexus website for more details about the SOLO’s study’s full objectives and methodology. For information on how to participate study, please contact WHIWH at 416.263.4869.