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British Columbia B.C. researcher gets Vatican’s blessing on life-saving HIV treatment

Dr. Julio Montaner, Director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, poses for a photograph after speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday February 19, 2012. Dr. Montaner met with Pope Francis and other officials Wednesday at the Vatican to discuss extending the life-saving treatment he pioneered at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital in the 1990s.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

The Pope has endorsed a Canadian researcher's pioneering use of antiretroviral drugs as a way to treat and prevent millions of HIV infections.

Julio Montaner, director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, met with Pope Francis and other officials Wednesday at the Vatican to discuss extending the life-saving treatment he pioneered at Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital in the 1990s. The 1.3 billion-strong Catholic Church provides HIV treatment around the globe and operates more than 5,000 hospitals and 9,000 orphanages, according to the Vatican.

The concept Dr. Montaner introduced in B.C., which has been adopted by a number of countries, includes diagnosing HIV early and treating it aggressively with a cocktail of three drugs to suppress the virus to the point of it being undetectable. This led to another breakthrough when researchers noticed a dramatic decrease in the likelihood that HIV patients could spread the disease, even through unprotected sex.

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The approach led B.C. to a 67-per-cent decline in new diagnoses and a drop of 87 per cent in AIDS-related deaths from 1997 to 2013, according to a report published by the centre last month. Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS patients on the antiretroviral drugs now have life spans approaching those of the general population.

The Vatican bulletin announcing the meeting between the Pope and Dr. Montaner, both born in Argentina, did not clarify if or when the church would roll out any treatment using antiretroviral drugs. An estimated 35 million people are living with HIV/AIDS globally. At the meeting, Dr. Montaner, a special adviser to the United Nations, reportedly announced that the UN had met its Millennium Development Goal of treating 15 million people with antiretrovirals by this year. By 2020, the UN hopes to meet its 90-90-90 target, whereby 90 per cent of the world's HIV-infected have been diagnosed, 90 per cent of those who know they're infected are on treatment, and 90 per cent of those taking antiretrovirals having levels of the virus in their bodies so low that they can't infect others.

Paul Schratz, spokesman for the archdiocese of Vancouver, said the church has worked indirectly with Dr. Montaner since he began his research during the height of the AIDS crisis at St. Paul's Hospital, which at the time was administered by the Sisters of Providence nuns. "We're thrilled to see this recognition by the Holy Father, we've been singing the praises of Dr. Montaner's work for decades," Mr. Schratz said.

Pope Francis has been lauded for his liberal views on LGBT issues, but restated the church's ban on artificial birth control earlier this year. The church only endorses natural birth-control methods, namely abstinence when a woman is capable of conceiving. And speaking on World AIDS Day two years ago, he said all those affected by the disease should have access to the care they need. "We express our solidarity with the people affected by HIV/AIDS, especially children, and we express our closeness to the many missionaries and health operators who work in silence," he said, according to Vatican Radio.

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