Dr. John Harding, Vancouver Coastal Health’s medical health officer, says it’s important to be tested both for your own health and your partner’s.
Photo courtesy Vancouver Coastal Health
New HIV cases continue to drop
Published 1:58 PDT, Wed July 3, 2019
Last Updated: 11:01 PDT, Thu July 4, 2019
The scourge killing young people in their prime in the 1980s and early 90s has been tamed with a combination of public education as well as medical research and testing.
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, snuck into the world in the early 1980s. During a hepatitis vaccine trial in New York, researchers found a surprising number of young men with a rare form of cancer and a rare pneumonia. They occurred only in some children born with no immune system or post-transplant patients on immune-suppressing drugs.
In 1981 the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta issued a special bulletin about this immune deficiency running rampant in some communities around the world. Cause: unknown. The result of this syndrome though became rapidly known: death.
While no one knew what caused it, because it first showed up in a gay community, researchers thought perhaps the condition was related to gay sex. When it also showed up in children of ill mothers and in blood transfusion recipients, the scientists became even more perplexed and alarmed.
In Vancouver too, this Acquired (meaning not inherited) Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) showed up early in the world-wide epidemic. One of the biggest and one of the first three studies in the world started at St. Paul’s Hospital.
Based on epidemiology, the data started to show AIDS was spread through an infectious agent, because it spread through blood products, shared intravenous needles and sexual contact but not through casual contact like shaking hands, coughing or sharing cups.
In time, thanks to previous pure research–research for which there is no obvious use at the time–done by medical researcher David Baltimore and others around the world, the ground work was laid and the cause found; AIDS was caused by a retrovirus, dubbed the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
People with AIDS, the full-blown disease caused by the HIV virus worked hard to raise awareness, increase acceptance and pressure governments to fund research.
Through this redoubled effort not only was the cause nailed down but an accurate test for HIV and early treatments were discovered. The deaths and diagnoses continued to climb. But gradually, the message about prevention through safe sex and a safe blood supply changed what people did. Then, as better drugs came on board that both kept people healthier and kept the amount of virus in their system low enough that transmission was less likely, the number of new cases started to drop.
The peak year was 1993 with 7,000 people in Vancouver, a city of about half a million people, living with HIV.
Now from Vancouver Coastal Health comes good news; the number of new HIV infections last year is down to 86. In the first six months of this year only 26 new cases were reported, putting the region on track for a continued drop in HIV.
"This is so encouraging to see," says Vancouver Coastal Health’s medical health officer Dr. John Harding. "It shows that our public health approach is working."
VCH doctors recommend that anyone who is sexually active get tested annually. If you have never had a test, discuss it as an option with your family doctor. It can also be included any time you are having other blood tests. For more information on HIV testing, click.
If you feel uncomfortable discussing this with someone else you can fill out a form here and go to any lab for a test. The test is covered by MSP. The form can also be used to get checked for other sexually transmitted infections (STI).
Harding says it is important to know your status. If you have an STI, treatment will save you problems and cut your chances of passing it along to anyone else.
"When VCH and Providence Health Care embarked on the provincial STOP HIV/AIDS program in 2009, one in five Canadians living with HIV were estimated to be unaware that they have HIV, and we saw too many people newly diagnosed with HIV already in the advanced stages of disease," says Harding. "Today in our region, people are being diagnosed and linked to care earlier, which can prolong and improve people's lives, as well as reduce transmission to others,” says Harding.
The made-in-B.C. STOP HIV/AIDS initiative includes outreach to marginalized groups; expanding access to early testing to diagnose those living with HIV in order to improve health outcomes and reduce transmission; and immediate and universal access to free antiretroviral therapy for all who are diagnosed HIV positive.
To protect those at highest-risk of acquiring HIV in B.C., government expanded access to a preventive treatment called PrEP. It is available for free through the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS to eligible people.
Knowing your HIV status can be a life-saver. HIV testing is free. You can start with your family doctor, clinics, or ask about it the next time you are in an emergency ward.
While all physicians warn against complacency, what was once a death sentence has become a treatable and, even better, a preventable disease through research, treatment and education.
For more information call Richmond Public Health at 604-233-3150.
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