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B.C. launches massive program to wipe out HIV/AIDS

Dr. Julio Montaner, Director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, poses for a photograph after speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday February 19, 2012.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Saying it is now possible to end HIV/AIDS, medical experts in British Columbia have launched a new social media campaign aimed at detecting and treating the disease faster.

The goal is to test everyone in the province who has ever been sexually active.

The sweeping approach is an attempt to catch the estimated 1 per cent of people who are unaware they are HIV-positive and aren't taking advantage of an effective treatment program that is available provincially.

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A key component of the new project is an HIV antibody test that produces results in about 30 seconds, from a single drop of blood taken from a person's fingertip.

"If you have HIV and don't know it, you can't do anything [to get treated]," Reka Gustafson, medical director of communicable disease control for Vancouver Coastal Health, said at a news conference Wednesday.

Julio Montaner, director of B.C.'s Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, described the test, which was developed in Vancouver, as "a very important new step" in the fight against AIDS.

He said an approach pioneered in B.C., starting in 1996, in which HIV patients are treated with a cocktail of three drugs, has had remarkable results, cutting the transmission rate of the disease by more than 95 per cent.

"And if we can stop the transmission, we can stop the disease," Dr. Montaner said.

But he said routine HIV tests now done in hospital ER wards in B.C. have shown that about 1 per cent of those screened are positive. Those results came from people who had no outward signs of infection and no idea they had been exposed, Dr. Montaner said.

He said the small number of people who are HIV-positive but don't know it – estimated at 3,500 in B.C. – continue to fuel the majority of infections in the province. That's why medical authorities now want everyone to get tested, he said. But he said he does not favour making the HIV test mandatory.

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"Nothing mandatory works," Dr. Montaner said. "When you [make] something mandatory you end up driving people underground."

He said he hopes the public will embrace the concept and will join with medical authorities in trying to wipe out AIDS. To encourage public participation, health authorities will launch a major advertising blitz.

Dr. Montaner acknowledged the approach means testing a large number of people, just to catch a few who are infected.

"By doing the test, 99 per cent are going to be negative [but we will get] the golden 1 per cent," he said.

Dianne Doyle, CEO for Province Health Care, said if the project works it could mark "the beginning of the end" for HIV/AIDS.

"The ability to truly change history… is amazing," she said.

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Editor's note: A new social media campaign aimed at ending HIV/AIDS, starting in Vancouver, is part of an already existing $48-million pilot program known as STOP HIV/AIDS that was launched in 2010. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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