An AIDS-free generation is "now in our sights," B.C. Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said Friday, as she announced a $19.9-million expansion of the province's landmark "seek and treat" pilot project to combat spread of the once-deadly disease.
The program aggressively pursues increased testing for the AIDS virus, so that those found to be infected can be treated with powerful drugs, which dramatically reduce the potency of the disease and chances of transmitting it to others.
An estimated 3,500 B.C. residents have the AIDS virus but don't know it, Ms. MacDiarmid said.
"We are trying to normalize testing. The message is: If you're sexually active, you should just go and have a test."
The extra money will enable the project, part of which encourages hospitals and doctors to recommend HIV tests for their patients, to expand across the province
Ms. MacDiarmid said the program has been so effective, it should be followed throughout Canada, as well.
"This initative need not stop at our borders, and I'd certainly welcome the opportunity to talk to [federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq] about it."
The drive for increased testing is motivated by the so-called "treatment as prevention" approach to combatting AIDS, pioneered by Dr. Julio Montaner and the Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver.
Their policy of enrolling HIV-positive patients on an effective, anti-retroviral regimen known as HAART has been shown to weaken the virus to such an extent that it cannot be passed on. It is now used to treat patients the world over.
B.C. is the only province to provide HAART free of charge, and the only province where the rate of new HIV cases is steadily declining.
According to a study released this week, the annual number of fresh HIV diagnoses in B.C. is down 65 per cent since 1996, when patients here began receiving HAART – from 900 to 289 last year. Over the same period, the yearly total of AIDS-related deaths plunged 90 per cent.
B.C. is "years ahead" of the rest of the world in treating HIV/AIDS," Dr. Montaner told a news conference heralding the government's funding boost on the eve of World AIDS Day.
"We have a revolutionary new development in health care, right here.
"The results we have achieved are quite compelling, and the world is beginning to move [towards our approach]. The times are right," he added.
"People talk about the possibility of an AIDS-free generation. Well, we are almost there."
Despite the many positive benefits of testing for the AIDS virus, however, Ms. MacDiarmid said it will never be mandatory for patients.
"I think that would be incredibly invasive, inappropriate and constitutionally challenged, just like that," she said.
There are currently 13,000 individuals living with HIV/AIDS in B.C.
One of them is Walter Hiebert, who received a positive diagnosis in 1988.
Speaking in support of the government's announcement, he said he was told, at one point, that he had six months to live. "I watched a lot of friends die."
But in the mid-nineties he was put on HAART by Dr. Montaner. "If it was not for him, I would not be alive," Mr. Herbert said, his voice cracking with emotion.
Editor's note: The spelling of Walter Hiebert's name has been corrected.