Government health officials in British Columbia believe that there are upwards of 3,500 undetected cases of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the province, and that testing as many sexually active adults as possible is the best way to identify and begin treating the virus to stop its spread.
The pilot project is the first of its kind in Canada, bankrolled by a $48M allowance from the provincial government. Private MD Labs
notes that other jurisdictions in the United States have proposed such pilot projects, but none have been implemented.
The aim is to get family doctors to begin suggesting their patients receive the HIV test when they are already in a medical facility for another purpose.
The wide net being cast by the program is intentional, as people in traditionally high-risk categories may be routinely tested for HIV already. But when symptoms can lie dormant for upwards of ten years, the government feels that stronger testing is the best way to root the virus out.
“No question about it, this is a big practice change," claims Dr. Reka Gustafson, medical health officer, communicable disease control, for Vancouver Coastal Health
. "In the past, we have targeted people in high risk groups (like men who have sex with men) but now we need to go beyond that and offer tests to anyone who has ever had sex," she told the Vancouver Sun
"It will not only reduce the stigma of such testing but it will also improve our early detection rates,” she said.
The HIV test can easily be added to a list of other blood tests being conducted. Since the cost of a lab test is typically no more than $10-$25 for a negative result (and upwards of $300 for a positive result), the province believes this is a small price to pay to stop the spread of a virus that will burden the health care system later on if left untreated. Treatment costs skyrocket the longer the virus is left undetected.
One study by GPIAtlantic
looked at StatsCanada data to determine the overall cost of treating HIV/AIDS in Canada, and found that in 1999, the price tag was roughly $600M.
And while the number of people dying from HIV/AIDS has dropped significantly since then, Avert
, a HIV/AIDS awareness organization, reports that BC still has the third largest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the country behind Ontario and Quebec, provinces with significantly larger populations. Problems with transmission via intravenous drug use in downtown Vancouver may go some distance towards explaining the larger infection rate by population percentage.
Roughly 200,000 HIV tests are performed annually in British Columbia, according to the Sun
; these blood tests have detected nearly 14,000 cases of people living with HIV who were not receiving treatment. And Avert
is arguing that the number of people living with HIV across Canada is on the rise - 65,000 in 2008, up from 57,000 in 2005. And of those, more than 25 per cent are unaware they have the virus, and are at serious risk of transmitting it to others.
Under the current pilot project, individuals have the right to refuse the testing offered to them by their doctor or other medical practitioner. But in order to make sure as few people as possible refuse the testing, the government has launched a massive advertisement campaign aimed to convince people of the importance of limiting the spread of an incurable, and potentially deadly virus.
The "seek and treat" program starts today.