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British Columbia Advocates decry Ottawa’s HIV strategy as China, B.C. cement partnership

Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, is pictured in February, 2012. Dr. Montaner was critical of Ottawa’s HIV strategy as B.C. and China solidified their partnership in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

B.C.'s partnership with China in the fight against HIV/AIDS highlights not only the progress being made overseas, but also the lack of foresight shown by the federal government at home, says an acclaimed B.C. researcher.

Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE), accompanied Premier Christy Clark in Beijing Tuesday as she signed a memorandum of understanding between the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the B.C. organization during a trade mission.

In 2011, China became the first country to adopt the BC-CfE's "treatment as prevention" (TasP) strategy, which involves widespread HIV testing and the immediate offer of highly active antiretroviral therapy to those who test positive. This treatment has been shown to virtually eliminate progression of the disease to AIDS and reduce transmission of the virus by 96 per cent.

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The United States, France and Brazil have since adopted the World Health Organization-backed treatment as well, each hailing it as a progressive strategy backed by abundant scientific evidence. Canada, however, has not.

"It's ironic, if not deplorable, that we're getting the attention we are getting internationally … and we are still unable to engage the federal government in a fruitful discussion regarding where the Canadian epidemic should go," Dr. Montaner said in an interview from Beijing.

The memorandum formalizes the partnership between China and B.C. in the fight against HIV/AIDS, which includes "enhanced" training for health professionals and initiatives such as a three-year HIV fellowship program that will allow top Chinese scientists to work with BC-CfE researchers in Vancouver, according to the centre.

China's adoption of the TasP strategy is a step forward in a country where discrimination against people living with HIV is still common. Just last month, the Chinese government reportedly drafted legislation that would ban HIV-positive people from spas and bathhouses. People with HIV have been turned away from hospitals and passed up for jobs despite laws prohibiting such discrimination.

While Dr. Montaner acknowledges these problems, he notes China – which once viewed HIV/AIDS as a Western problem – in recent years has made significant progress in the fight against the disease. China has, for example, the fastest growing HIV testing campaign in the world today, he said.

"Yes, stigma and discrimination are alive and well when it comes to HIV and behaviours closely associated with HIV – not just in China, but all over the world," he said. "All you have to do is turn to Ottawa, and understand how our federal government is criminalizing HIV and related behaviours actively, and with passion, at a time when there is no scientific evidence to allow that."

In Canada, B.C. remains the only province to have implemented the TasP strategy. Dr. Montaner has written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Health Minister Rona Ambrose, as well as former health ministers, every year for the past six years with no luck, he said.

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"The federal government, at the present time, is not just being regressive. It is willfully neglecting HIV/AIDS and anything that has to do with it," he said. "There is no effort on the part of the federal government even to have a concerted approach to fighting HIV/AIDS in our country."

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