By Norm Letnick
Health is a top priority for the government of British Columbia, and we’ve made significant investments in research, disease prevention and treatment. These investments have paid off in a number of ways, including better health, greater innovation and long-term cost savings.
There are few better examples of this than our investments in HIV research, treatment and prevention. In Canada, British Columbia is the national success story in combating HIV and AIDS.
Thanks to research conducted at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) and Provincial support for Seek and Treat to Optimally Prevent HIV/AIDS (STOP HIV), an innovative pilot utilizing the “Treatment as Prevention” approach, British Columbia stands tall in Canada. B.C. is the only provincial jurisdiction showing a steady decline in the number of AIDS deaths, AIDS cases, and new HIV diagnoses.
This is vital work. A diagnosis of HIV is stressful and challenging for individuals, and can have a big impact on family and friends. Each HIV case costs approximately $500,000 in medication alone, and illness and ongoing stigma surrounding HIV infection can add to the burden. Fewer HIV and AIDS cases reduces the impact on individuals, friends and family, while translating into more infections prevented and opportunities to reallocate healthcare resources to other high priority areas.
The BC-CfE‘s leading-edge work has produced impressive results. Although based in Vancouver, BC-CfE is a critical provincial resource that serves all health authorities and citizens of B.C., including those in Kelowna and the Okanagan. More than 15 years ago, the BC-CfE played a key role in the discovery of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), the landmark drug cocktail that has been adopted in Canada and around the world as the gold standard of treatment for HIV.
The Treatment as Prevention approach calls for widespread HIV testing and immediate treatment for those who wish to engage in care. Research conducted by BC-CfE showed optimal HAART treatment reduces the level of HIV in blood and other biological fluids to undetectable levels, thereby decreasing the likelihood of HIV transmission by more than 90 per cent.
These successes have attracted global attention. Similar programs have been launched in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC. On November 8, 2011 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Treatment as Prevention strategy a vital plank in her comprehensive proposal to combat HIV and AIDS around the world.
In addition, China recently committed to implementing a countrywide HIV/AIDS strategy based on BC-CfE’s work. China has 740,000 people infected with HIV and nearly 110,000 people with AIDS.
The World Health Organization developed a mathematical model that predicts a 95 per cent reduction in new HIV cases globally within 10 years if Treatment as Prevention is widely adopted. This analysis suggests the Treatment as Prevention approach could save more than seven million lives by 2050, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
B.C.’s accomplishments in the global war against HIV are truly staggering. However, we must not become complacent. There are at least 12,000 HIV-positive people in B.C. It’s estimated approximately 2,500 of them remain undiagnosed.
Only by continuing to support strategies such as Treatment as Prevention will we be able to defeat HIV and AIDS.
Norm Letnick is the MLA for Kelowna Lake Country and The Chair of the Select Standing Committee on Health for British Columbia