Sean B. Rourke, born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, is a Clinical Neuropsychologist and Scientist with MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto, and is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He is an international expert in the neurobehavioural complications of HIV. He is also the Director of two national centres funded by Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR): the CIHR-funded REACH Nexus and the CIHR Community-Based Research (CBR) Collaborative Centre for HIV, both of which focus on pragmatic solutions for HIV and other sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs) in Canada.
In Nov. 2020, Sean’s research with REACH Nexus succeeded in getting Canada’s first HIV self-test approved, a significant step forward in ending Canada’s HIV epidemic. Next up, in spring 2021, REACH will be launching I’m Ready, a major national research program that will be distributing over 50,000 free HIV self-testing kits and asking questions from the people who will use them to improve HIV testing and care in Canada. I’m Ready is a truly national effort, where Sean is working together with community-based partners, academics, public health and with the government and policy sectors across Canada.
The I’m Ready research program is part of REACH Nexus’s broader I’m Ready to Know project, which aims to end HIV in Canada in the next 3-5 years with low-barrier access to self-testing and connections to care. As part of I’m Ready to Know, Sean and the REACH team are working on a host of diverse and low-barrier strategies to reach key populations in different communities, such as pharmacist-led connections to care and interactive refitted vending machines to distribute HIV self-testing kits. Additionally, REACH is currently leading clinical trials that have the potential to get a second HIV self-test approved in Canada—one that can be conducted with blood or oral fluid.
Sean knows that ending the HIV epidemic in Canada is within reach, but only if we can connect the 8,300 people living with HIV who are undiagnosed (unaware of their status) and the 7,840 people diagnosed with HIV to care and get everyone access to life-saving treatments. When people are on treatment and their virus is suppressed, they cannot transmit HIV to their sexual partners. Treatment as prevention is a highly effective public health intervention, which is why connecting people to care and prevention is central to REACH’s work.
Sean is confident that the pragmatic approaches REACH’s research is taking will make a difference, but acknowledges that we also need to address the many reasons that some people and key populations are harder to reach and face more barriers in Canada to testing and care than others: these include systemic racism, the legacy of colonization including residential schools, and stigma and discrimination in various forms—including gender-based and against LGBTQ2+ communities. These barriers to access have been exacerbated during COVID-19.
As part of reducing barriers and combatting HIV-related stigma, REACH Nexus is also leading a national anti-stigma project, The Positive Effect—which includes the pozcast podcast—that uses storytelling and sharing the lived experience of people living with HIV to build awareness and resilience. REACH Nexus’s research has clearly shown that we can’t end HIV in Canada without defeating HIV-related stigma—a common barrier to testing, care and social support.
Overall, Sean is transforming how implementation science can be used to have a stronger impact on policies and frontline services and to solve complex health problems for people living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS. With his novel and effective approach to community stakeholder engagement, partnership development across disciplines and sectors, innovative knowledge transfer and exchange and research-to-action strategies, Sean is having a major influence on us getting closer to the end of the HIV epidemic in Canada.