30 years after AIDS discovery, HIV rates up in Canada
Thirty years ago, AIDS was a source of public panic, a death sentence, a disease with no treatment and no hope. Today, that's no longer the case.
There's still no cure, but medical advancements and attitudes have come a long way. Antiretroviral medication drugs keep patients alive for decades. Even the "cocktail" of drugs that was common a decade ago has improved, so that many patients now get by on a single pill a day.
But while the United Nations reports a decline in the number of new HIV infections worldwide in the last decade, in Canada, rates of infection are actually on the rise.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says there's been a 14 per cent increase in the number of people living with HIV in Canada from 2005 to 2008. Every eight hours, a Canadian contracts HIV. As well, young adults accounted for about 24 per cent of all people newly diagnosed with HIV and AIDS in 2007.
It's a disturbing and disappointing trend, says Christopher Bunting, the president of the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR). "We've come a very long way both in terms of attitudes and in terms of medical advances. But we've still got a gap to close," Bunting told CTV's Canada AM Friday.
CANFAR just commissioned a new survey along with the Social Research Centre (SRC) on Canadians' attitude to AIDS and HIV prevention. Among its finds was the startling statistic that among Canadians who have had two or more sexual partners in the last year, almost six in 10 said they did not use a condom the last time they had intercourse.
Bunting says he doesn't know why so many are being complacent about picking up HIV. "I think Canadians need to re-engage with this issue. This disease is still with us, it's still among us. And I think it's definitely moved off to the back burner over the last decade in particular," he said.
While HIV doesn't raise panic these days, that certainly wasn't the case 30 years ago. When the first cases of the disease were described in an article in the June 5, 1981, edition of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was intense worry.
The article described the cases of five previously healthy, young gay men in Los Angeles who had what appeared to be an unusual medical condition. All had been diagnosed with a form of pneumonia that usually appeared only in those with substantial immune system damage. Doctors were baffled about what was happening to them.
Soon, more cases appeared, at first mainly in gay men, but then also in injection drug users, hemophiliacs and recipients of blood products. Later, heterosexual men and women, and newborn babies began dying of unusual illnesses. Though doctors didn't realize it at first, all had what would later be called acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
Since then, more than 25 million people have died of AIDS. Today, at this moment, 33 million people are carriers of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Many of those people live in poor countries and will die quickly because of poor access to treatment. And yet, in Canada and other Western nations, newly diagnosed patients live for decades. In fact, they have a life expectancy only a few months shorter than people without HIV.
Slowly, the picture is changing. An estimated 6.6 million people in low and middle-income countries were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV/AIDS at the end of 2010, according to the World Health Organization. Of this, around 450,000 were children.
"The impressive new estimates are an important milestone in the public health response to HIV that began 30 years ago," Dr Margaret Chan, WHO's director-general, said in a statement Thursday. "But we have much to do to reach the goal of universal access, and doing more of the same will not get us there. We need further innovation in HIV, including simpler and more accessible prevention and treatment approaches for all those in need."