The Atlantic Interdisciplinary Research Network (AIRN) began in 2005 funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Institute of Infection and Immunity (III) under an Interdisciplinary Capacity Enhancement (ICE) grant. To date, AIRN has developed a stakeholder network of over 250 individuals and organizations in Atlantic Canada with an interest in HIV/AIDS and HCV, developing knowledge transfer and exchange mechanisms to share research, forming an Advisory Committee of policy makers, academic researchers, and community-based stakeholders to support the movement of evidence into action, undertaking research in key areas with stakeholders, and in building capacity within the region to undertake research (through the mentorship and provision of awards to students via a competitive process).
Prior to the formalization of AIRN, a workshop was held with funding from CIHR to determine how the Atlantic region can work together as partners in addressing both HIV and HCV. On August 27 and 28, 2003, 36 participants from the 4 Atlantic provinces met at a workshop titled A Coordinated Approach to HIV and Hepatitis C Research in Atlantic Canada: How do we get there? The workshop was, in part, to investigate the feasibility of an HIV/Hep C Social and Behavioral Studies Unit for the Atlantic Region. The workshop was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) with assistance from Dalhousie Research Services and the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation.
In 2009, AIRN began a collaboration with the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN), The CIHR Centre for Research Evidence into Action for Community Health (REACH) in HIV/AIDS, and regional networks across Canada to join forces to address the HIV epidemic.
AIRN works to share information and coordinate research efforts in HIV and HCV throughout the Atlantic provinces to improve the quality of life of those affected by HIV and HCV and to shape policy and program responses. Coordinating efforts across the Atlantic region has a much greater impact, particularly with respect to information dissemination, knowledge uptake, and policy development.
Reducing barriers to Atlantic Canada’s relatively conservative harm reduction landscape has long been top priority among a number of the region’s researchers and community organizations involving the the Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick (NB), Prince Edward Island (PEI), Nova Scotia (NS), and Newfoundland & Labrador (NL).
Here is one highlight: in 2014, when access to community-based needle and syringe programs (NSPs) was severely limited across the region; free take home naloxone was not available; waiting lists for opioid treatment and detox were commonly six months to a year; there were no formalized networks of people who use drugs; and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PReP) was not yet approved for use anywhere in Canada we collectively contributed to key gains in all of these areas.
- Increased federal and provincial funding for harm reduction. Needle exchange services across the three main harm reduction service providers in mainland Nova Scotia and in Cape Breton have been enhanced and stabilized, in accordance with some of the recommendations in a 2017 AIRN report. The Safe Works Access Program (SWAP) in NL has expanded, as have the programs in NB.
- Contributed to Prince Edward Island (PEI) implementation of Canada’s first HCV elimination strategy which includes treatment of people actively using drugs.
- Naloxone is available free of charge in the region, and widely accessible in NS, NB, and NL through pharmacies and community based organizations (CBOs). PEI offers free naloxone through its needle exchange sites. NL was a forerunner in this region, and galvanised other provinces to take action.
- Decreased wait times for methadone and Suboxone treatment, as well as other opioid treatment services. The Bailey Bus – Canada’s only mobile methadone clinic established in 2012 to address the treatment wait list – is no longer needed and has been decommissioned. Direction 180, the Atlantic Region’s only low-threshold opioid replacement treatment program has recently moved in to a new, larger, and more effective facility.
- Contributed to the Quebec-Atlantic Node of CRISM (Canadian Research Institute on Substance Misuse) and the hosting of the 2017 and 2018 symposia
- Increased accessibility and decreased barriers to PReP
- Developed a formalized network of people who use drugs in Halifax (HANDUP) which provided advocacy, harm reduction, peer education and support services. The team produced a video in 2017 that has inspired many, with close to 25K views on Facebook alone. HANDUP members continue to be a critical voice for harm reduction efforts, including overdose prevention sites and have recently been integrally involved in large-scale harm KTE efforts, including provincial and regional harm reduction symposia in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
- Contributed with an evaluation of Mainline in 2016 to make funders realize the effectiveness and impact of Mainline Needle Exchange and to expanding the peer-based harm reduction outreach service through Mainline’s Peer Navigator program (Twitter @needleexchange2).