Free access to HIV treatment sought
VANCOUVER—Researchers in British Columbia are calling for a national strategy to provide free access to HIV treatment after publishing a study that indicates universal antiretroviral drug coverage dramatically cuts new infections.
A team of researchers at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS examined rates of new HIV infections in B.C., Ontario, and Quebec for more than a decade, and compared them with the number of patients on antiretroviral treatment.
What’s more, the study found a 10 percent increase in the number of patients on the therapy led to an eight percent decrease in new infections.
That’s because patients on antiretroviral drugs are far less likely to transmit HIV through unprotected sex, needles, and even between a pregnant mother and her fetus.
But researcher Dr. Julio Montaner said provinces that don’t offer fully-subsidized access to the drugs, instead requiring deductibles and co-payments, have fewer patients taking the medication and, consequently, more infections.
He noted a disproportionate number of HIV patients are homeless or suffer from drug addiction or mental illness, increasing the need to ensure treatment is easy to access.
“Many people infected by HIV have many challenges to be concerned about, whether it’s homelessness or mental health or addiction or isolation,” Montaner said in an interview Tuesday.
“They have competing, urgent priorities that make it impossible for them to address their HIV.”
Montaner has long advocated a strategy known as treatment-as-prevention, pointing to data that shows treatment not only improves the lives of patients and prevents new infections, but also saves governments money in health-care costs.
He also wants governments to ensure more people are routinely tested for HIV since as many as 25 percent of patients don’t even know they are infected.
Montaner published a study two years ago that concluded increasing the proportion of HIV patients in B.C. taking antiretroviral drugs to 75 percent, from about half right now, would save the province nearly $1 billion during the next 30 years.
“Once you understand that [antiretroviral treatment] also prevents transmission, that makes the treatment not only cost-effective, but cost-averting; in other words, it saves you money,” he stressed.