British Columbia

New Vancouver-area HIV cases fall by more than half

Last year, 86 people in the region were diagnosed with HIV, down from 178 seven years earlier, according to Vancouver Coastal Health.

2019 numbers expected to drop to record-low levels

HIV testing is available for free at doctors' offices, walk-in clinics and hospitals. (AFP/Getty Images)

The number of new HIV infections in the Vancouver Coastal Health region has fallen by 52 per cent since 2011, and it's expected to keep falling.

Last year, 86 people in the region were diagnosed with HIV, down from 178 seven years earlier, according to the health authority.

So far this year, only 26 new infections have been reported, marking a downward trend that could lead to the lowest number of annual cases recorded since the virus first became reportable in 2003.

"This is so encouraging to see," VCH medical health officer Dr. John Harding said in a news release.

Thursday marks National HIV Testing Day and Harding is encouraging anyone who is sexually active to go in for a test every year.

"In 2009, one in five Canadians living with HIV were estimated to be unaware that they have HIV, and we saw too many people newly diagnosed with HIV already in the advanced stages of disease," Harding said.

"Today in our region, people are being diagnosed and linked to care earlier, which can prolong and improve people's lives, as well as reduce transmission to others."

He credits the STOP HIV/AIDS program, a provincewide initiative, for much of the drop in numbers. The program includes outreach, expanded access to early testing and immediate and free access to antiretroviral therapy.

In the Interior Health region, where infection rates have also been falling, HIV tests are now being done during routine blood work for people who visit the emergency room.

"HIV can present with lots of different health problems — from respiratory concerns to pneumonia and and even things like heart conditions — and what we find is that, historically, people have been only tested if they come in for very specific reasons," Maja Karlsson, the health authority's manager of harm reduction and health outreach, told CBC.

"This initiative is to break down barriers and ensure that people who might not be considered at high risk of HIV but who might be living with HIV and not know it, actually have a chance to be tested."

Free HIV testing is available through family doctors, walk-in clinics and hospitals in B.C.. Preventive treatment through pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is available for free to high-risk groups including transgender women and men who have sex with men.

With files from Josh Page