Activists call for more HIV funding from Ottawa as AIDS conference opens in Montreal

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MONTREAL — As an international AIDS conference begins in Montreal this week, Canadian HIV and AIDS organizations say Canada’s response to the disease at home has stalled.

Advocates say federal funding for addressing HIV and AIDS has been frozen since 2008, even though the number of people in Canada living with the virus has risen by 25 per cent since then.

"The number of new infections continues to remain fairly static, rather than decreasing," Richard Elliott, with the HIV Legal Network, a Toronto-based organization that advocates for the rights of people living with HIV, said in an interview Tuesday.

Elliott, who is scheduled to deliver a speech at the Montreal conference, said his organization is part of a coalition of groups calling for federal HIV funding to be increased from around $73 million a year to $100 million — a figure recommended by a parliamentary committee in 2003.

"If this overall envelope of $100 million (was) actually delivered, we could up our research game," he said. "We could fund more organizations to reach more populations with front-line HIV prevention work, and then support and treatment programs."

AIDS 2022, the 24th International AIDS Conference, is scheduled to take place from July 29 to Aug. 2 at Palais des congrès de Montréal. It brings together researchers, health-care practitioners and people living with HIV. Previous editions have attracted more than 20,000 participants.

About 1,500 people were infected with HIV in Canada in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. There are now more than 62,000 Canadians living with HIV.

Not only has funding been frozen but money dedicated to AIDS research has been diverted to fight other sexually transmitted diseases, Elliott said. Recently, several hundred thousand dollars was transferred to organizations responding to the monkeypox outbreak, Elliott said, adding that while it's "great" those organizations are getting more funding, it shouldn't come at a cost to HIV organizations.

"It's this same old pattern of expecting underfunded organizations, with inadequate money, to just keep taking on more and more challenges, rather than actually resourcing them to face those new challenges, in addition to actually finishing the business of the HIV epidemic, which is far from being over," he said.

The federal government says that in 2020, 90 per cent of people living with HIV in Canada knew their status; 87 per cent of people with HIV were receiving treatment; and 95 per cent of people on treatment had an undetectable viral load.

But Ken Monteith, executive director of a network of AIDS organizations in Quebec called COCQ-SIDA, says those statistics reveal that Canada failed to meet all its 2020 targets — which are part of a joint United Nations and World Health Organization commitment. The targets, he said, were 90 per cent in all three categories.

Canada's targets for 2025 are to reach 95 per cent in all three categories, a goal set by UNAIDS. But Monteith, who is participating in several panel discussions at the conference, says he thinks Canada is unlikely to reach those goals.

"If we don't change our posture and provide sufficient funding, we're not going to get there," he said.

Jody Jollimore, executive director of the Community-Based Research Centre, a Vancouver-based organization that advocates for the health of people of diverse sexualities, said Ottawa needs to "compel" the provinces to make more available medication like PrEP — which is highly effective at preventing HIV.

"It's not just about funding, it's about leadership, and we need the feds to show leadership on this," said Jollimore, who is scheduled to speak at the conference.

"We actually do have some great tools right now for preventing HIV, we just need to get them in the hands of the right people."

Health Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said it will take collaboration between government, health-care workers and community groups for the country to reach its 2025 sexual health targets on HIV.

The federal government, Johnson said in an email, remains "committed to ensuring that people in Canada have equitable access to prevention, testing and care for sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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