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Despite government apathy, individual Canadians shine in the fight against HIV

July 26, 2009

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Fifth International Aids Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention in Cape Town. Not unexpectedly, given the high concentration of HIV within sub-Saharan Africa, the continent was at the epicentre of conference discussions. But Canada, seemingly far removed from the global epidemic, was another key player, with Canadian scientists and policy makers at the forefront of break-through research findings and policy discussions.

Canada’s position within the global AIDS epidemic is somewhat precarious. Scientifically, Canada has been central to the fight against the virus from the early days, with Canadian scientists proving the safety and effectiveness of HAART, one of the most effective anti-retroviral viral therapy (ART) treatments currently available, and pushing for it’s greater uptake worldwide. Politically, however, the picture is not as crystal clear. While Canada has always been a proponent of some level of international funding, financing the country’s own programmes has been inconsistent at best. The majority of Canada’s people living with HIV are First Nations, intravenous drug users and/or sex workers—all of whom are socially marginalised, making programmes that work with these populations both politically unpalatable and logistically difficult. Such programmes have been especially threatened under Harper, and the battle to prove the need and effectiveness of working with such marginalised communities continues, despite overwhelming evidence that these populations do indeed bear the greatest brunt of Canada’s epidemic, and that we have interventions that do work.

Despite these domestic battles, Canada continues to hold great weight within the global fight against AIDS. At the opening of the Cape Town conference, Stephen Lewis of AIDS Free World and Julio Montaner of the BC Centre for Excellence on HIV/AIDS and president of the International AIDS Society both made smiting speeches damning the broken promises of the G8 and highlighting wealthy countries’ lame excuse of the economic crisis to legitimise curtailing aid to Africa. Scientifically, Canada continues to impress, with Montaner’s thesis of ART as prevention gaining significant support: based on several studies and models showing that increasing treatment rates has the potential to significantly decrease transmission rates, the World Health Organisation is considering revising it’s current guidelines. While the Harper government arguably can and should do more to stem the global and local effects of the virus, individual Canadians’ commitment to the fight against HIV is impressive and inspiring, and demonstrates how the work of a relative few can save the lives of many.

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