HIV rate in B.C. expected to hit record low in 2019
'The strategy that we pioneered in B.C. ... has been extremely successful,' says Dr. Julio Montaner
The annual number of new HIV cases diagnosed in B.C. is expected to hit a new record low this year, in more than two decades of record-keeping, said HIV/AIDS research pioneer Dr. Julio Montaner.
The lowest number to date was 2017, when 182 people in B.C. were newly diagnosed with HIV. Last year it was slightly up, at 199 people — but still a far cry from the epidemic's peak in the 1990s, when in 1996 more than 700 people were diagnosed in the province.
Sunday, on World AIDS Day, Montaner says 2019 is expected to be even lower.
"The strategy that we pioneered in B.C., of Treatment as Prevention ... has been extremely successful," said Montaner, executive director and physician-in-chief for the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
In a release, Health Minister Adrian Dix said that strategy has become the "world's gold standard to profoundly reduce HIV transmission, and transition the crisis from a serious epidemic to a manageable chronic disease."
Controversial at first
Treatment as Prevention (TasP), which was pioneered in B.C., means using advanced anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV, which both improves the health and quality of life of the person with the disease — but also can reduce their viral load to an undetectable level, which makes the risk of transmission approach zero.
"At the time it was regarded as controversial," said Montaner, about the beginning of the notion of Treatment as Prevention, developed at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in the mid-2000s.
There were about 8000 people living with HIV on anti-retroviral therapy in B.C. last year, according to data from the centre.
Overall, from 1996 to 2018, B.C. saw a 90 per cent drop in new AIDS cases and a 73 per cent drop in new HIV cases, said Montaner.
HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks and can destroy the body's immune system, leading to the disease AIDS. With treatment, a person can be HIV-positive but keep the virus at bay using anti-retroviral therapy, and never develop full-blown AIDS.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, says in a statement that the province has made incredible progress in its fight against HIV and AIDS since the turn of the century.
She says local research has accelerated the province's efforts to reduce the impacts of what was once a death sentence.
"This work has been crucial to the progress of not only our provincial efforts, but efforts around the world to end HIV and AIDS,'' she says.
The government expanded public funding for pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis medication on Jan. 1, 2018. As a result, about 4,500 people at high-risk for contracting an infection have qualified for the potentially life-saving treatment, it says.
"Our government is committed to advancing the fight against this disease as we increase support for communities and people affected,'' Premier John Horgan says in a statement.
"Breakthroughs in treatment and prevention, along with education, awareness, community work and fighting stigma, have contributed to huge advancements toward the elimination of this epidemic.''
With files from the Canadian Press