With change of government, HIV strategy needed

This is the time for leadership to tackle HIV in Canada

By Laurie Edmiston

HIV in Canada?”

It’s a question I often hear on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1).

Many of us think of HIV/AIDS as an issue affecting other countries. However, what about an HIV epidemic in Canada?

More than 70,000 Canadians are living with HIV, and on average, seven to eight new infections happen every day.

While these numbers are concerning, Canada’s overall rate of new infections is still lower than the global average. Nonetheless, HIV has reached epidemic levels in key populations across this country of ours.

In certain communities, the virus is more prevalent than in countries around the world hardest hit by the HIV epidemic.

In the Ahtahkakoop First Nation in Saskatchewan, for example, 3.5 per cent of the population is living with HIV.

In Toronto, an estimated one out of every five gay and bisexual men is HIV-positive.

In Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, an estimated 27 per cent of people who inject drugs are HIV-positive.

At this year’s International AIDS Society conference in Vancouver, we heard success stories from around the world, as many countries scale up their efforts to meet ambitious new testing and treatment targets set by UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS).

With new targets at the global level and new federal leadership in Canada, now is the time to renew our own HIV response and catch up with the rest of the world.

Over the past decade, Canadian harm-reduction programs were strongly opposed by the previous federal government, despite clear evidence they save lives and prevent the spread of HIV. An estimated 11 per cent of Canadians who inject drugs are HIV-positive.

In Australia, where they have adopted harm-reduction initiatives, such as needle syringe programs, fewer than two per cent of people who inject drugs are HIV-positive.

In Canada, a large proportion of people living with HIV do not know their status because they have not been tested. Those who are diagnosed face inconsistent access to treatment, which can extend life expectancy and reduce the chance of passing on the virus.

Remarkably, HIV treatment access is estimated to be greater in Botswana, where a national program provides free treatment to two-thirds of people with HIV in the country.

Canada’s national HIV strategy was written more than 10 years ago and doesn’t include actions related to any of the new scientific developments that should be guiding our national response. These new developments include the fact that people who start treatment soon after infection stand a good chance of living a near-normal lifespan and of not being infectious to others.

Canada has a lot to learn from other countries. This World AIDS Day is a perfect opportunity for us to think globally and act locally. Let’s create our own ambitious strategy to address HIV in Canada.

Laurie Edmiston is executive director of CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.

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