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Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, right, speaks during a news conference, as Ken Monteith of COCQ-SIDA looks on, at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal, on Aug. 1.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Canada’s refusal of visas for hundreds of delegates from low-income countries planning to attend the International AIDS Conference in Montreal has sparked anger around the world, but in the government’s first response, a senior minister has simply brushed it off as unfortunate.

“It needs to be recognized that this is not only a source of anger and frustration, but also a social inefficiency,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on Monday when he visited the conference to make an announcement.

“It is – I will not say a human tragedy – but it is certainly a collective tragedy that more of us couldn’t come to this place.”

Many activists have accused Canada of being racist, and the world’s top AIDS scientists even called on the Prime Minister to come to the conference to justify the visa denials.

Combating HIV is costly but the cost of inaction is higher

Mr. Duclos sidestepped the question of whether the government would apologize, or change its policies, saying simply that it was his “personal and professional opinion” that more people should be at the AIDS conference, and he would raise the issue with his cabinet colleagues.

Meanwhile, the Health Minister announced $17.9-million in new funding to improve HIV testing, including $8-million for the purchase and distribution of self-testing kits, and $9.9-million to expand HIV testing in northern, remote, or isolated communities.

In a separate announcement, Harjit Sajjan, the Minister of International Development, announced $15-million in funding for UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Mr. Sajjan previously caused a stir at the conference when he backed out of making welcoming remarks, apparently because of concerns about protesters.

Health Canada has approved self-testing kits but they are expensive, about $35 each.

There are roughly 63,000 Canadians living with HIV. An estimated 10-per-cent of them are undiagnosed.

AIDS groups welcomed the new funding, saying that getting hard-to-reach individuals tested and in treatment is a priority.

But they also expressed disappointment that there wasn’t a broader funding commitment. “Obviously, this is not what we were hoping for but I view it as an important first step,” said Jody Jollimore, director-general of the Vancouver’s Community Based Research Centre.

Ken Monteith, director-general of COCQ-SIDA, a Montreal-based AIDS group, also welcome the new emphasis on testing, but said similar investments are needed in treatment, especially making anti-retrovirals and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for prevention more widely available at no cost. “We need to fund all aspects of the cascade of care,” he said.

Funding for Canadians AIDS groups has been fixed at $73-million annually since 2008, and they have said that should be increased to at least $100-million.

Mr. Duclos left them with a glimmer of hope in that regard, saying of the money: “It is a first step. We have invested where the returns are greatest – to use an economic term.”

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