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Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, holds a chart showing the decline of new AIDS cases in B.C. from 1983 to 2013, as Health Minister Terry Lake listens. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, holds a chart showing the decline of new AIDS cases in B.C. from 1983 to 2013, as Health Minister Terry Lake listens. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Closing of Vancouver hospital’s AIDS ward is symbolic of progress Add to ...

For more than a decade, Ward 10C was ground zero in Canada’s struggle against the AIDS epidemic.

An otherwise sterile and unremarkable room within Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital, Ward 10C was a place where patients came to die. The generic name was code for the hospital’s AIDS unit.

When the first patients were moved into the ward in 1997, at the peak of the epidemic, nearly one person was dying of AIDS daily. The disease itself carried so many stigmas that the ward’s name was a necessary invention to spirit patients from the emergency room to the AIDS unit without causing a scene.

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The stigma has been conquered, and along with it, much of the once terrifying disease.

On Tuesday morning, Ward 10C was deactivated due to the near-elimination of AIDS cases in B.C. It will become a unit for the chronically ill. While the battle against AIDS has not been won yet, the disease is no longer a death sentence.

Celebrating the symbolic closing of the ward, Julio Montaner took aim at federal inaction on AIDS. A champion of the AIDS/HIV treatment-as-prevention strategy, he said Ottawa’s failure to take do more has hindered progress toward wiping out the disease nationwide. The method consists of widespread HIV testing and offering powerful antiretroviral drugs to those who test positive.

“Canada is still missing in action when it comes to a comprehensive AIDS strategy. We have regions like Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where AIDS is still out of control,” said Dr. Montaner, who heads the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

“If every province was doing what B.C. has done, we would have a country that would be celebrating together the same thing.”

Dr. Montaner joined Premier Christy Clark and other officials on Tuesday in lauding the ward’s metamorphosis as a sign that the illness is almost under control in the province.

“Virtually, AIDS disappeared, but it didn’t really disappear until the very end, when treatment-as-prevention became the reality,” Dr. Montaner said, holding up a graph depicting a dramatic plummet in cases. “We did it and everybody else can do it.”

As of 2013, only 40 people in B.C. were identified as living without medical care and facing the disease that can develop from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). B.C. had an estimated 11,972 people infected with HIV in 2012, with more than half getting active treatment.

Expanded treatment coverage in the province is credited for an 80-per-cent drop in both AIDS cases and HIV-related deaths since 1996, and a 66-per-cent decline in new HIV diagnoses.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Rona Ambrose said there has been “strong federal leadership on the file.” Over the coming year, Ottawa will invest $86.7-million in two initiatives addressing domestic HIV/AIDS, including a vaccine program.

The St. Paul’s ward will continue to provide HIV/AIDS treatment, but will expand to include treatment of various bacterial and viral infections.

With AIDS being treated as a manageable long-term chronic illness, the concept of an AIDS ward in Canada has become an anachronism, according to Mark Wainberg, director of the AIDS Centre at McGill University’s Jewish General Hospital.

“We haven’t cured HIV yet, but there are so many concerted efforts right now that I don’t think anyone would be surprised if we developed a cure over the next few years,” he said.

Along with Dr. Montaner, Dr. Wainberg is part of a generation of physicians that have spent their careers tackling the epidemic. As both men near retirement, they have witnessed a dramatic transformation. A disease that once caused medical professionals to recoil at the thought of a handshake with patients is now on the cusp of being defeated.

Michel Sidibé, director of the United Nations’s AIDS program, said B.C. has reached a “defining moment” that should inspire global communities to start thinking about ending AIDS altogether.

Tamsyn Burgmann is a reporter with The Canadian Press

Follow on Twitter: @justincgio

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