Despite rare case of cured HIV patient, B.C. charities say support still vital
'We've seen a decline each and every year for funding,' says AIDS Vancouver — but patients still need help
HIV/AIDS charities in B.C. are reiterating their continued need for support after a patient who was declared "functionally cured" recently made global headlines.
In early March, a man who had HIV known as "the London patient" was found to have no trace of the virus nearly three years after receiving a bone marrow transplant from a donor with a rare, HIV-resistant gene mutation.
Soon after the news was published, the executive director of A Loving Spoonful — a charity that provides free meals to people living with HIV/AIDS in Metro Vancouver — received calls asking if her organization still needed to raise funds considering a cure had been found.
"Those questions are coming in as our fax machine is going off with referrals from people that need help," Lisa Martella recalled.
She says it was concerning, considering 80 per cent of her organization's funds come from donations and their major fundraising event is set to take place on Thursday.
News of the London patient's cure was "very promising," Martella said, "but this is not a mass cure for everybody at this point."
Steady demand for support
Stories like those, combined with recent strides in treatments, have led to an uphill climb for funding for HIV/AIDS organizations.
AIDS Vancouver says such stories contribute to its ongoing struggle for funding.
"I think we've seen a decline each and every year for funding, through donations, through government grants," says Brian Chittock, executive director of AIDS Vancouver for the past nine years.
Meanwhile, demand for services has largely remained the same.
Over A Loving Spoonful's 29-year history, Martella says the organization has had an unwavering roster of 350 people and families across the Lower Mainland registered for meals every week.
Artist Joe Average, 61, was one of the people who relied on the non-profit when his health was poor and he fell into a deep depression.
"They helped me out for almost three years, fed me and got me going," he says.
Now he volunteers for A Loving Spoonful whenever he feels strong enough.
After living with HIV for more than three decades, he feels fortunate he's long passed the six months to live that doctors had once given him.
But even with the great progress made in combatting the virus, he warns young people against thinking life can be completely normal after a HIV-positive diagnosis.
He says he's lost much of his body fat due to a side-effect from some of the life-sustaining drugs he takes.
"It'll have an impact on them, that's all I'm saying," Average said.
Victim of its own success?
New infections are at an all-time low in B.C. and patients are living longer than ever, according to researcher Dr. Julio Montaner at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
But he acknowledges their work may have become a victim of its own success.
Montaner has led the pioneering strategy of treating all patients with anti-retroviral drugs for free. Since the program's implementation in 1996, the number of new HIV diagnoses in B.C. has dropped from 702 people to 186 in 2017.
However, he warns against being lulled into a sense of complacency.
"If you start celebrating too early and you withdraw the resources, the people living with HIV are still there," he says.
"Inappropriate access to services or less favourable access to services will be ultimately associated with a rebound of the epidemic."
Montaner says he's seen it happen in Greece.
The government there, he says, pulled back on health-care funding during the financial crisis in 2008, and the country saw an eventual uptick in new HIV cases.
It's something he hopes to never see happen in Canada, especially when we're only decades away from "taming" the disease, he says.
"The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter and brighter ... contracting the investment [in support] today would be extremely dangerous."