World AIDS Day highlights Vancouver's successes but challenges remain
World AIDS Day at the Dr. Peter Centre began the same way every day does -- with a hearty, well-balanced breakfast amongst friends.
But on Thursday, breakfast was served up by a special guest, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, who came to recognize the exceptional work of the Dr. Peter Centre.
"We are all so proud to be a leader in AIDS treatment and prevention here in British Columbia, and make no mistake we are a leader," Clark told a crowd of reporters, before stepping behind the counter to dish up the food.
Since 1992, the Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver's west end has provided care to people with HIV/AIDS and is known for providing treatment with a progressive, holistic approach, recognizing that nutritious food and a strong support network for people living with the disease are equally as important as medication.
The center offers services that range from counseling, art and music therapy, medication assistance and nursing, to life basics such as showers, laundry facilities, televisions, and even a nurse-supervised drug injection room.
Both the center's programs, which include a day health program serving approximately 350 individuals, and a 24-hour residential care wing that can accommodate 24 patients at one time focus their services on those most in need -- those who, alongside HIV/AIDS, also suffer from other disabilities or illnesses, addiction, homelessness and poverty.
"When individuals come to the Dr. Peter Centre, yes, its clinical services, but its clinical services in a social milieu that addresses the broader determinants of anyone's health, like the presence of a support network in one's life and some of the basics like food," said Davis, Maxine, executive director of the Dr. Peter Foundation.
"It is a therapeutic environment where they can have a different kind of relationship with people. In fact, many of them say it is the family they never had."
The center's progressive approach to treatment, which has been investigated and replicated by cities and countries around the world, is perhaps unsurprising.
Vancouver, a Canadian city hit hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, has been a leader nationally and globally in prevention, treatment and awareness since the disease first came on the scene.
The "triple drug cocktail", known as HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy) that is now the gold standard treatment for HIV/AIDS, was pioneered in Vancouver, and unveiled at the World AIDS Conference held in the city in 1996.
St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver was the first hospital in the country to care for people living with HIV/AIDS, and also first in the country to integrate HIV end-of-life care with all other end-of-life care.
Vancouver is also home to one of the world's leading HIV/AIDS research institutions, the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, as well as North America's first legal supervised drug injection site, InSite, which has been credited with helping cut Vancouver's HIV infection rate by half.
But nonetheless, the city struggles to cope with the disease that effects approximately 8,500 people in Metro Vancouver alone.
Currently, some 65,000 Canadians are living with HIV/AIDS, with about 3,300 new infections occurring each year. British Columbia has one of the country's highest infection rates per capita, and is home to more than 13 percent of the Canadians living with the disease, most of whom live in the Vancouver area.
And while the largest percentage of people living with the disease are gay men and injection drug users, Davis pointed out that the fastest growing number of new infections are occurring in the heterosexual community.
It is a trend that she attributes partially to the fact that 26 percent of Canadians who are HIV positive do not know that they are.
She said it is why World AIDS Day, which occurs ever year on Dec. 1, is so important.
"Because there isn't a focus on HIV/AIDS the other 364 days to the degree that there should be, (World AIDS Day) is an opportunity actually for Canadians to re-familiarize themselves with what is happening," Davis said.
She said it is not only an opportunity to get the mantra out there, "get tested, get tested, get tested, prevention, prevention, prevention," but also an important time to recognize the progress that still needs to be made, especially as the focus of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero" -- zero deaths, zero new infections, and zero stigma.
"As a city, and as a country, we've come a long way in some ways and in other ways we haven't. In regards to stigma and discrimination, we've made a lot of progress since the 90s. However, stigma and discrimination still exists and actually is a barrier to some people getting treatment," she said.
This is a big problem, considering that recent groundbreaking research from the BC Centre for Excellent in HIV/AIDS has shown that HIV treatment itself is a prevention tool, and that patients taking daily medication consistently are about 96 percent less likely to transmit HIV, Davis said.
"That is one of our key goals here; getting HIV treatment to people is the right thing to do for their health, but it's now also the right thing to do to get a grip on the epidemic globally," she said.
"We have all the tools in the prevention toolbox to practically eradicate HIV/AIDS."