All adult residents of British Columbia will be offered a free HIV/AIDS test every five years under an expanded program aimed at preventing transmission of the virus in the province. 

B.C. has routinely offered HIV tests to pregnant women, virtually eliminating transmission of the virus from mothers to babies, says B.C.'s chief medical officer, Dr. Perry Kendall.

Now, the province will offer the following testing options in a program being billed as the first of its kind in Canada:

  • For all British Columbians between ages 18 and 70, every five years. 
  • People in high-risk groups will be offered testing every year.
  • Patients who have to get diagnostic blood testing for a new or worsening medical condition.   

The high-risk group includes:

  • Gay men.
  • People who inject drugs.
  • Sex-trade workers.
  • People from endemic regions such as the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Aboriginal people.

B.C.'s aggressive approach to fighting HIV/AIDS is paying off, so expanding the testing program is a logical next step, says Kendall.

"By expanding HIV testing, we will I think be taking another great step to potentially eliminating HIV in the province of British Columbia."          

In British Columbia, an estimated 12,000 people are known to be living with HIV/AIDS, but Kendall estimates another 3,500 people have HIV/AIDS and don't know it.

Each year, 200 to 300 people aged 13 to 81 are diagnosed with HIV. But early diagnosis enables people with HIV to live just as long, and without symptoms, as those who are not infected, and there is virtually no chance of dying from AIDS. 

Testing will save money

It's expected about 100,000 tests under the new program will be done over the next two years costing the province some $700,000, a price officials say is well below the cost  of treatment and will save lives.

Dr. Julio Montaner, an AIDS researcher who first called for widespread testing several years ago, says the expanded program offers value for money.

"If you find one case per 1,000 when you do normalized testing, it's not only good for the patient, but it makes dollars and cents," said Montaner.

B.C. Minister of Health Terry Lake says the program is also intended to remove the stigma over testing.

“British Columbia’s reputation as a global leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS is growing because of the development of innovative programs and guidelines like these,” said Lake.

“Dr. Kendall’s guidelines will help remove the stigma some associate with HIV as B.C. continues to set a standard for care and treatment of this disease.”

The tests won't be mandatory and will still require informed consent, said Lake.

"People have free will and we have to recognize that, but at the same time, I think most people want to do the right thing and I think with the right education, the right training of physicians and nurses, the vast majority of people will elect to have the test if recommended."

With files from Lisa Cordasoc