Greater Access to Treatment Needed to Curb AIDS Deaths and the Spread of HIV

Vancouver, February 21, 2008 — Forty per cent of people who died of HIV/AIDS-related causes in B.C. between 1997 and 2005 never accessed life-saving, free, highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), reveals a new study published by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE). Low socioeconomic status was found to be strongly associated with the delay in starting therapy as well as higher mortality rates among people on HAART.
According to the study, published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, there were 1,436 HIV-related deaths in B.C. between 1997 and 2005. In total, 567 persons died without ever accessing treatment.

“Residing in a poor neighbourhood is associated with an increased risk of mortality among HIV-infected patients,” explains Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC-CfE. “Factors such as lack of housing or transportation, mental illness, illegal activity and language barriers play a role in an individual’s ability to access treatment.”

HAART consists of taking three (or more) antiretroviral drugs on a daily basis for life. The therapy requires very high levels of adherence in order to be fully effective. The therapy decreases levels of the virus in the body and this allows the immune system to recover. HAART became the standard of care for the treatment of HIV/AIDS in 1996. The BC-CfE distributes HAART medications to all eligible British Columbians, free-of-charge, through the province-wide Drug Treatment Program, funded by Pharmacare.

According to the study, increased awareness of available treatment as well as support to expand treatment is needed for persons living with HIV/AIDS in B.C. New social and health policy initiatives targeting HIV-infected individuals of lower socioeconomic status, beyond the provision of free and universal health care, are required to optimize access to HAART programs to save lives among HIV-infected individuals and help stem rates of transmission in the community.

“The effectiveness of HAART is well established, yet ensuring optimal access to HAART by all eligible persons remains an elusive goal,” says Montaner.

Previous research by the BC-CfE looking at data from B.C. and Taiwan showed an approximate 50 per cent reduction in new HIV cases that can reasonably be attributed to the introduction of free access to HAART. HAART decreases HIV levels in blood to below 50 copies/mL. At these levels or lower, the risk of transmitting HIV decreases significantly.

“We must stress that we do not see HAART as a replacement for the prevention effort but, rather, as an essential part of it,” adds Montaner.

In January 2008, Swiss HIV researchers produced the first-ever consensus statement to say that HIV-positive individuals on effective antiretroviral therapy and without sexually transmitted infections are sexually non-infectious.

For a full copy of the study or interview requests, contact Stephen Burega, media relations, 604-506-3734 (c),

About the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
Founded in 1992 by St. Paul’s Hospital and the provincial Ministry of Health, the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS is a key provincial resource seeking to improve the health of people with HIV through the development, ongoing monitoring and dissemination of comprehensive investigative and treatment programs for HIV and related diseases. St. Paul’s Hospital is one of seven care facilities operated by Providence Health Care, Canada’s largest faith-based health care organization.