British Columbia leads the country in reducing the spread of AIDS - there's no reason it can't lead the world in eliminating the disease altogether.
B AIDS is one of the world's deadliest diseases, afflicting nearly 40 million people. Although it is so far incurable, it can be contained, and most important of all, it can be prevented.
Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, believes the disease can be stopped. He's among the province's medical experts who have launched a four-year, $48-million pilot program aimed at detecting and treating HIV/AIDS faster. He says B.C. pioneered an approach, beginning in 1999, in which HIV patients were administered a combination of three drugs, which cut the transmission rate of the disease by more than 95 per cent.
New AIDS diagnoses in B.C. are down 85 per cent from the peak in 1996, mainly through a focus on treatment and education.
When the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s, being diagnosed with the disease was tantamount to a death sentence - patients rarely lived more than a few years. But medications have been developed that allow patients to have longer and healthier lives.
Still, there is no vaccine and no cure. Those developments may yet come, but meanwhile, HIV/AIDS is highly preventable. The means of transmission - through human bodily fluids - is clearly understood. It's a matter of taking the right precautions.
The trouble is, the majority of new infections in the province are spread by people who are HIV-positive and don't know it, about 3,500 people in B.C., estimates Montaner. He wants to find them, and to do that, he and his colleagues want to test every person in the province who is or has been sexually active. He wants to find those who unknowingly carry the HIV virus so they can be treated and to prevent the disease from spreading further.
The test is quick and simple - with a new procedure developed in Vancouver, the HIV antibodies can be detected in about 30 seconds from a drop of blood taken from a person's finger.
The key is in getting people to take that test. Some may be offended by the mere suggestion that they could be carriers of the disease.
True, the majority of HIV carriers are among the highrisk groups - such as men having sex with men, sex-trade workers and intravenous drug users - but there are other situations, however remote, that can result in infection.
Why take a chance? What you don't know can indeed hurt you. And others.
Montaner is looking beyond B.C.'s borders in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In July, he took his message to the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., where he urged governments to sign the D.C. Declaration, which "recognizes the fact that we stand at a unique time in the history of the AIDS epidemic. Through new scientific advances and societal, political and human rights gains, it is possible to turn the tide against AIDS and begin to end the epidemic in our lifetimes."
Montaner told the conference of B.C.'s progress. "We are the only jurisdiction in Canada that has seen decreasing HIV rates," he said.
"And the reason is because we have a focused, aggressive HIV program. We have a progressive leadership in the province and we have a committed population to actually do the right thing."
AIDS is a terrible disease; millions have died, millions are afflicted and many more millions will die. But the knowledge and skills exist that can wipe out AIDS - it's the will that's needed.
"You can deliver on an AIDS-free generation," is Montaner's message to the politicians. "All you need to do is implement what we already know and we get it done within your political term."
The rest of us can do our part by getting tested, and by supporting treatment of this disease without judgment or condemnation.
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