Canadian AIDS research groups are calling the federal government's announcement of $88 million for HIV/AIDS research insufficient and disappointing given the size of Ottawa's resources and funding needs.

On Tuesday, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced that a partnership formed in 2005 between the federal government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been renewed as the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative Research and Development Alliance. 

'If this was a new breakthrough in diabetes or something that there was basically scientific consensus that the current policy was harmful, policies would get revised.' — Dr. Evan Wood

The alliance funding includes $60 million from Canada and $28 million from the Gates foundation for research aimed at developing an HIV vaccine. Of the total, $30 million will go to preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus in developing countries.

Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, said the alliance does not address key issues and ignores the call to arms from UNAIDS to expand treatment as a prevention strategy.

"Today, Canada must make a significant commitment to treatment as prevention, and help the global community provide highly active antiretroviral therapy [HAART] to the millions in need of this treatment," Montaner said in a news release.

"It is criminal neglect to ignore the plight of those affected by HIV and dying of AIDS now. However, the Government of Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not seem to hear their pleas for help."

Federal drug policy 'rigid'

Dr. Evan Wood, founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, and another researcher at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, called the funding announcement frustrating.

"Its rare in history that you get such a coalescing of support spontaneously in the scientific community, and then you have a government who quickly comes forward and says they don't support it because its inconsistent with their policy," Wood said from an international AIDS conference taking place in Vienna.  

"If this was a new breakthrough in diabetes or something that there was basically scientific consensus that the current policy was harmful, policies would get revised. But they're so rigid  in their approach that it's obviously very frustrating."

Wood welcomed the funding to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV as a "key contribution," but said its scale and the fact the Canadian government won't endorse the Vienna Declaration were disappointing.

Vienna Declaration

The Vienna Declaration is an official document of the International AIDS Conference taking place in the Austrian capital this week. It was published by the medical journal The Lancet.

The statement seeks to improve community health and safety by calling for scientific evidence to be incorporated into illicit drug policies.

"The fact that the Canadian government has said that they don't endorse the Vienna Declaration is obviously just going to be a huge source of concern to those working in public health," Wood added.

On Monday, the Canadian government rejected the Vienna Declaration, saying it doesn't fit in with this country's drug policy.

"Given that some of the recommendations outlined in the Vienna Declaration are inconsistent with Canada's National Anti-Drug Strategy and current federal drug policy, Canada will not support the document," Charlene Wiles of the Public Health Agency of Canada wrote in an email.

"The Government of Canada believes that the best way to address the public health consequences of injection drug use is to prevent people from using illicit drugs in the first place. Treatment services are essential in helping those addicted to drugs to stop."

Wiles noted federal funding does support needle exchanges offered by provincial and territorial governments, as well as an array of HIV/AIDS treatment and outreach programs targeting groups such as injection-drug users and youth considered to be at a greater risk.

Leaders in the field of HIV/AIDS, including Nobel laureate Dr. James Orbinksi, Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, and Stephen Lewis, former special envoy to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have endorsed the declaration.

With files from The Canadian Press