A unique strain of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Saskatchewan may be the cause of an increase in AIDS-related deaths in the province, experts say.

A leading researcher at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University said the strain appears to be unique to Saskatchewan.

"It may mean there's a highly fit virus that has evolved and is just working really well in moving through this population," biologist Jamie Scott told CTV Saskatoon.

Experts aren't sure what the strain may mean for infected persons, but mortality rates in the province appear to be on the rise.

"Why are people dying so much from the virus here? People are advancing to AIDS and much more so than normal," Scott said.

There are about 150 new cases of HIV infection in the province every year, most of them linked to the sharing of intravenous drug needles.

"What we are seeing is a lot of clusters, a lot of ‘I won't share with strangers, but I'll share with my cousin, my best friend, my boyfriend'," said Nicole White of AIDS Saskatoon.

"And you know sometimes, we're sort of supporting people from diagnosis to death, which is happening extremely quickly here," she said.

Many of the new infections are related to poverty, substance abuse researcher Colleen Dell said.

"That link with injection drug use is really important and something that needs to be teased out," she said, adding poverty is an ongoing problem in the province.

"We have a lot of marginalization . . . so that is absolutely going to contribute to that," Dell said.

With files from CTV Saskatoon's Colin Thomas

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