Pharmacist Zahid Somani tailors his services to the special needs of the Church Street community
An average day for Zahid Somani, owner of The Village Pharmacy, is a cycle of filling out prescriptions, answering phone calls and bringing clients in to receive a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) test.
But what Somani and his pharmacy do for the community is far from average.
The Village Pharmacy is Toronto’s first independent HIV-specialty pharmacy and Ontario’s first pharmacist-run walkin HIV testing site.
The first location of the pharmacy opened in 2001 on Church Street and has built a reputation for helping clients access medication and navigate their way through the health-care system.
For Somani, the work is a natural outcome of what he observed after graduating from the pharmacy program at the University of Toronto.
He says he noticed that the HIV infection rate in most cities in Canada was on the rise — especially in Toronto. So he decided to look into it.
“Getting tested is hard in this city. Tech clinics are free to use but are often full,” says Somani.
Along with another in-house pharmacist, Somani offers clients a convenient all-day testing site at his new Yonge Street location (on Fridays and Saturdays) using the only HIV rapid test approved in Canada, the INSTI HIV-1/HIV-2 Rapid Antibody Test.
According to their website, the test is a rapid in vitro qualitative test for the detection of antibodies to HIV type 1 and type 2 found in human whole blood, fingerstick blood, serum or plasma. The test gives results in as little as 60 seconds rather than the usual two-week wait period from a normal clinic.
While more than eight out of 10 Ontarians living with HIV have been diagnosed, the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN) estimates there are about 3,000 people in the province who are unaware they are HIV-positive. OHTN believes a pharmacy testing site can be a highly effective way to achieve their goals of linking people to care if they are positive or to prevention programs, like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), if they are negative.
“We know that people trust pharmacists, and engaging pharmacists early can help with medication adherence later on. We also think that making HIV testing available in pharmacies where people go for many other health needs will help reduce any stigma associated with HIV testing,” said the OHTN.
Kim Munchrath has been going to The Village Pharmacy for five years now and actually enjoys the experience that comes with picking up her prescriptions.
“As someone in the LGBTQ+ community, it’s especially meaningful to go to a pharmacy where I never feel awkward about my sexuality or gender presentation. I’m 100 per cent comfortable there,” says Munchrath.
Although the 37-year-old goes there for medication unrelated to HIV, she appreciates the personalized suggestions from Somani and the other pharmacists on site.
“I had been having a hard time and was considering talking to my doctor about trying antidepressant meds, but I was feeling uneasy about doing so,” says Munchrath.
After talking about it with Somani, he thoroughly assessed Munchrath and was able to find out which medication was right for her.
“Once the results came in, he actually wrote a note for me to take to my doctor. That level of care and help just blew me away,” says Munchrath.
But this type of thoughtfulness isn’t uncommon for Somani; his efforts stretch far beyond his patients and the local community.
The Village Pharmacy website recognizes the value of being socially responsible — on behalf of his clients, Somani gives five per cent of the pharmacy’s earnings not just to the community, but to international organizations as well.
“When you get your prescriptions at The Village Pharmacy, you can feel good knowing that you’re also helping to support incredible organizations in Toronto prevent HIV, fund HIV research, provide services to those living with HIV, as well as national and international organizations that help people living with HIV, kids, refugees, the environment and much more,” the pharmacy’s website states.
While Somani says that 14 per cent of people with HIV don’t know their status, his efforts — along with his connections to the OHTN — are aimed at reducing that number.
Additionally, the OHTN says everyone has a role to play in normalizing testing and ending the stigma surrounding HIV.
It’s important to “(educate) yourself on the latest information about HIV, the effectiveness of PrEP, the importance of undetectable equals untransmittable (where an undetectable viral load means a person cannot transmit the HIV virus to sexual partners),” says the OHTN.
The OHTN also suggests that understanding the importance of testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections will help normalize HIV.
Somani says that some people with very little knowledge about HIV have interesting misconceptions about contracting it.
“I had a guy go into a massage parlour, get a massage and then come in for an HIV test. I refused to test him because that’s not a risk.
”There’s still some perception that kissing or touching someone with HIV will give you HIV, but it won’t,” says Somani.
So he says he’ll keep assisting people at the pharmacy — and dismantling unfounded worries — one patient at a time.