HIV/AIDS may be out of the minds of most people, but Interior Health said it’s time to bring it back to the forefront.
“It’s the right time because we actually have things we can do and we’re excited about it,” said Dr. Trevor Corneil, medical health officer and leading physician for STOP (Seek and Treat for Optimal Prevention) HIV/AIDS, a program geared at stopping the transmission of HIV AIDS.
In the Thompson Cariboo Shuswap portion of Interior Health there are about 175 HIV positive persons, Corneil said from Kelowna.
“If one went by population I would guess that in the west we would expect anywhere between 25 and 50, if I pulled Kamloops out of the equation.”
It’s important to note those numbers are the people the health system know about, he explained.
There are another 26 per cent who actually don’t know they are infected.
“Those unknown persons are now the largest source for new infections in Canada and in B.C.,” Corneil said.
With STOP HIV AIDS the aim is to turn testing specific populations considered high risk to testing every person on an annual or bi-annual basis.
When every person visits their physician they will be asked if they have had an HIV test in the last year.
That way health providers can find people who are HIV positive, engage them in the right kind of care to extend their life expectancy, and help prevent transmission from people who are eligible for treatment who might not be accessing it at this point.
“If more people know their HIV status and receive early treatment, the spread of the disease in our communities can be halted,” Corneil said.
Early diagnosis also means better outcomes and advances in treatment. People who are HIV positive are living a much longer and near normal life, an IH press release noted.
“When an infection is identified early it can be managed as a chronic disease,” Corneil said. “Early treatment can prevent the virus from attacking the body and it can also prevent it from spreading to others. It will take about three years to implement the program, but we are on the road to getting it started.”
Overall the numbers are decreasing, but in B.C. the decrease has been mostly with persons with addictions who use intreveneous needles, based on their need and the capacity to support them with treatment, they are brought into care and at the same time their HIV is addressed, Corneil said.
“So we have really seen the number of transmissions from people who potentially might share needles drop.”
Corneil said in other other populations affected significantly by HIV — gay men, First Nations, sex trade workers — and the heterosexual community, health workers haven’t seen a decrease.
“What we’re looking to do is demonstrate that we can decrease new cases of HIV in all groups.”
An overall implementation plan for all of Interior Health includes programs that will be rolled out in Williams Lake within the next six to 12 months.
“We are already in the process of engaging local health care providers with regards to treatments for persons who are HIV positive so they can have access to treatment,” Corneil said.
“We will also working with both community agencies, local First Nations, and others to bring regular screening into the community and more enhanced efforts to help people with HIV care.”
In the meantime, everyone is getting specific information through the division of family practice, everyone in the health care community will be provided with some additional education themselves to increase the awareness and knowledge of health care workers and the population.
“As soon as I have a doctor trained up we will be able to bring in some outreach and we may find ourselves partnering with Prince George who is also rolling something similar out,” Corneil said. “We have yet to discuss any specifics, but we look forward to working with local health care administrators and providers and the communities.”
As a physician, Corneil has been involved with HIV care since 1995 and as a medical administrator in Vancouver he learned and gained experience working with health care systems.
“When our office of the medical health officer developed a plan, it was decided by the group they needed a medical health officer with expertise in the area,” Corneil said.
STOP HIV/AIDS program implementation started in three communities earlier this year: Vernon, Merritt, and Trail and will expand to all IH communities over the next 24 months.
Referrals to the team can be made by physicians, community organizations, or through self-referral by calling 1-866-778-7736.
On Dec. 1, the world will be celebrating World AIDS Day – a day dedicated to raising awareness about HIV prevention and treatment. This year’s theme is “Getting to zero — zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths.”