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B.C. HIV/AIDS pioneer to be honoured by Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

Dr. Julio Montaner developed a strategy that uses anti-retroviral drugs to reduce HIV patients’ risk of transmission. Along with Dr. Judith Hall, a UBC geneticist whose work focuses on birth defects, he is being inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Two Vancouver researchers – one a world-renowned expert on HIV/AIDS and the other a geneticist whose work has focused on birth defects and dwarfism – are among the latest inductees into the prestigious Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and Dr. Judith Hall, a professor emerita at the University of British Columbia, will be honoured Thursday at a ceremony in Winnipeg. They are among six researchers receiving the distinction.

Dr. Montaner is being recognized for his many contributions to the field of HIV/AIDS research – notably his groundbreaking treatment-as-prevention strategy, which uses anti-retroviral drugs to reduce patients' HIV viral count and, consequently, reduce their risk of transmission.

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Dr. Hall is being recognized for her contributions to medical understanding of birth defects, dwarfism and other physical abnormalities.

Dr. Montaner, a frequent critic of the federal government's approach to HIV/AIDS treatment and drug policy, said he hopes the award sends a message to leaders in Ottawa.

"This kind of recognition validates the work we have done and hopefully encourages the federal government regarding the fight against HIV/AIDS in this country, which is in such dear need of pan-Canadian leadership," he said in an interview.

Last December, Dr. Montaner was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada and in March, he met with Pope Francis to discuss the treatment-as-prevention strategy and its adoption by Catholic aid organizations around the world.

Treatment as prevention is the model behind the United Nation's 90-90-90 HIV strategy, which aims to have 90 per cent of people with HIV diagnosed, on treatment and have their viral load suppressed by 2020. Dr. Montaner said he is still waiting for Canada to endorse that goal.

"All I hear from Ottawa is they're not objecting to it, but really, they're not doing anything kind of domestically or internationally to support what it is."

Dr. Hall, the UBC geneticist, has focused her research on birth defects and human congenital anomalies, particularly dwarfism and disorders resulting in short stature.

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She was able to identify more than 300 kinds of disproportionate short stature, publishing her findings in a textbook used by medical professionals around the world to evaluate patients with abnormal features or syndromes.

"As a geneticist, what I know is lots and lots of birth defects have a genetic basis," she said. "But the families don't know that. They just want to know what's going to happen to their child."

She said that advocacy organizations such as Little People of Canada have been supportive of her work and that in her experience little people and their families are usually eager to contribute to research that will help people better understand the unique health issues they face.

Dr. Hall is the only female inductee this year – a reality that doesn't surprise her. She said the areas where women tend to do research are less valued by the scientific community and society at large.

"I see women like me being interested in birth defects, being interested in genetics because it [has] to do with families, being interested in prenatal diagnosis – those kinds of things that affect women," she said.

"And I think that it's possible that those are not as much valued by men.

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"We have to think about the kinds of research and contributions women make that might be different."

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