Senate calls on feds to increase HIV funding as new infections rise

TORONTO — The Senate has adopted a new motion urging the federal government to increase HIV funding to $100 million annually, as new infections continue to rise across the country.

In 2014, Canada committed to three major targets set out by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) to help end the global epidemic.

The UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets state that, by the end of 2020, 90 per cent of all people living with HIV should know their status, 90 per cent of all people diagnosed with an HIV infection should have received treatment, and 90 per cent of people taking treatment should have an undetectable viral load.

Despite promising to adhere to these targets, Canada is still not on track to meet them. Community health advocates and senators are calling on the federal government to increase HIV funding to $100 million annually.

The motion adopted by the Senate on Dec. 1 was introduced on World AIDS Day by independent New Brunswick Sen. René Cormier. In addition to an increase in funding, Cormier’s motion also asks the federal government to set national targets for HIV/AIDS and to assess the cost of implementing its five-year action plan on sexual transmitted and blood-borne infections.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has a major impact on prevention, access to treatment and ongoing support for HIV/AIDS patients,” Cormier said in a statement. “We need to act now, before we face a setback in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Canada.”

According to an April report from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the federal government has shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on medical research, testing and efforts to secure a vaccine. But some advocates fear that redirected funding towards COVID-19 could have a troubling impact on other aspects of health care.

“Funds mobilized to deal with COVID should not be coming at the expense of funding for Canada’s HIV response, which is already inadequate,” community health advocate and chair of the HIV Legal Network, Ron Rosenes, said in an interview with CTV News. “Funding has been so diluted over the last 13 years that it has hindered the response to HIV.”

In June 2019, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health recommended a commitment of $100 million annually specifically dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Canada. However, when the government later released its five-year action plan on sexually-transmitted and blood-borne infections that funding was not included.

The federal government is now being asked to reaffirm its commitment in the fight against HIV/AIDS and to guarantee $100 million in annual funding for testing and treatment.

“Our concern really is that without stable annual funding dedicated to HIV, we will not be able to reach the sustainable development goals which Canada committed to meet by 2020,” Rosenes says. “These targets are being met by other countries as well resourced as Canada and others with far fewer resources.”

“Canada is really lagging behind in reducing the number of new infections and ensuring people have the care and support they need,” he added.

In a statement sent via email to CTV News, Health Canada reiterated that it spends $26.4 million annually through the HIV and the Hepatitis C Community Action Fund and an additional $7 million annually on the Harm Reduction Fund to help community-based organizations address HIV, hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections.

The department also included a progress report which says that slow progress on the 90-90-90 targets may be related to “the experience of intersecting health challenges such as socio-economic characteristics, health status, emotional aspects such as HIV-related stigma and anxiety, as well as beliefs about HIV and treatment remaining as barriers to accessing and adhering to HIV treatment.”

According to a 2018 report by the Public Health Agency of Canada, HIV rates across the country are steadily increasing. In 2018 alone, there were more than 2,500 new cases of HIV in Canada, an 8.2 per cent increase compared to the previous year.

Experts say that, without a vaccine or cure, prevention of HIV is paramount.

“If we want to avoid new infections in the population, it is imperative to focus on prevention,” Cormier said in a statement to CTVNews.ca “Prevention obviously includes awareness and education campaigns, but also the use of PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis]. It is a preventive treatment which, if used correctly, provides about 99 per cent protection.”

The federal government has recently reaffirmed its commitment to a national, universal pharmacare plan in both the speech from the throne and its fall economic statement. Cormier says this is an opportunity to work with the provinces and territories to ensure not only that the costs of HIV/AIDS treatments are fully covered, but that PrEP is also covered and accessible everywhere.

He added, “Prevention also means continuing its commitment to the development of supervised injection sites and providing financial support to organizations that work daily on the ground with key populations.” 

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