B.C. signs agreement to help China with program to wipe out HIV and AIDS

VANCOUVER – The discovery of HIV in a Chinese sect whose members refuse to wear condoms and believe that sex is a fundamental, God-given privilege was the impetus for an agreement on a prevention plan between British Columbia and China.

It’s a story Dr. Julio Montaner, of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, loves to tell.

Dr. Zunyou Wu, the director of China’s Centre for Disease Control, didn’t like the B.C. program and “didn’t like me,” Montaner said with a chuckle.

Zunyou believed the B.C. treatment would be medicalizing something he thought should have been controled by behaviour, Montaner said.

But when doctors in China found HIV among the sect members, they moved to the method B.C. uses of expanding testing, giving free treatment and engaging those in need of HIV therapy.

“They tried it and overnight they had a terrific success, so that served as the proof of the principle for them and then (Zunyou) said, ‘I like Dr. Montaner,'” Montaner said.

In China on Tuesday, B.C. Premier Christy Clark signed an agreement with the Chinese government, cementing a prevention plan that began with the B.C. group two years ago.

The memorandum of understanding also begins a fellowship that will allow Chinese doctors to travel to the province for research related to treatment and prevention.

A very small percentage of China’s population has HIV or AIDS, but that’s still about one million people.

Montaner hopes the latest expansion of the treatment plan worldwide will embarrass the Canadian government into adopting the same method across Canada.

China, Brazil, France, the United States and several countries in Africa are in the process of emulating the program that has virtually conquered the disease in British Columbia, he said.

But it’s hardly a victory, Montaner said, adding he is constantly being rebuffed by federal officials at home.

He said he wonders if the Conservative government in Canada would treat the issue the same way if it were another disease such as breast cancer or the flu.

“Talking about something that has to do with sex or drugs for them is taboo. They’re just not going to go there.”

British Columbia’s program has cut the mortality rate for HIV and AIDS by more than 95 per cent since 1996, has virtually eliminated mother-to-child transmission of the disease, and prevented HIV transmission among injection drug users by 90 per cent.

“On one hand I have the huge satisfaction that we’re making progress internationally, and on the other hand, I have to recognize that in my own backyard, which is the rest of Canada, … this has been an uphill battle,” Montaner said.

That’s an embarrassment, and the message needs to start getting through to the federal government, he said.

“Those few (officials) need to hear the message that there is something that is happening around the world, that is not happening in Canada because our federal government is wilfully neglecting those who are infected with HIV and AIDS, with the hope that somehow this will make them go away.”

Montaner said if there is no interest in saving lives, then perhaps the clear evidence of cost savings would convince the government to use the program.

“For the fiscally responsible government, as they pretend to be, one way or another they should be able to understand this,” he said.

No one from Health Canada returned a call requesting an interview.