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Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, is president-elect of the International AIDS society.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

One of the world's most prominent AIDS scientists is lashing out at Stephen Harper, saying the Canadian Prime Minister snubbed organizers of a major international conference because he is "afraid" to show his face after his lack of leadership on health at the recent G8 summit.

"My country's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was invited to be a plenary speaker and he refused," Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society, told reporters Sunday at a press conference before the opening of the International AIDS Conference in Vienna.

"He's not here because he's afraid to confront the deficit the G8 left on the table," he said.

Dr. Montaner was fuming because the Group of Eight nations, under Mr. Harper's chairmanship, did not discuss the HIV-AIDS at its recent Toronto summit, and member countries, including Canada, have reduced their contributions to fighting the epidemic.

"I cannot hide my profound disappointment and deep frustration with the recently concluded G8/G20 meetings in Canada," he said.

By failing to commit and fund treatment for all people with HIV-AIDS, Dr. Montaner said, the "G8 has quite simply failed us."

The Prime Minister's Office responded by citing Canada's contribution of more than $640-million for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in the developing world.

In 2009, donor countries - principally the G8 - provided $7.6-billion (U.S.) for AIDS relief in developing nations, compared with $7.7-billion in 2008, and there are strong hints they will cut further.

Dr. Montaner, who is also director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS in Vancouver, was initially asked about the refusal of political leaders such as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to attend the conference. (Russia has one of the fastest growing HIV-AIDS epidemics in the world, one that is fuelled by injection drug use.)

"Russia and Ukraine not being here is being heard loud and clear," he said. "That is criminal negligence."

But, in the next breath, Dr. Montaner said that he was reluctant to criticize Eastern European politicians when his own Prime Minister was no better.

Mr. Harper infamously refused to attend the International AIDS Conference when it was held in Toronto in 2006, drawing the ire of AIDS activists both in Canada and internationally.

The Prime Minister has also had an ongoing spat with Dr. Montaner over the funding of Insite, a safe injection site in Vancouver.

Dr. Montaner spearheaded the project as a way of reducing the spread of HIV-AIDS among injection drug users, while Ottawa wants to shut the project down. The battle will be resolved in the Supreme Court of Canada.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq is attending the International AIDS Conference but she is not scheduled to speak.