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Canada’s fight against HIV shameful, say doctors and local AIDS organizations

But PHAC says Canada is one of the leading donors in the global response to HIV and AIDS

Canada’s fight against HIV is shameful and the Conservative government’s ideologies are to blame for clouding social and health reform, said local AIDS organizations, doctors and politicians at the 23rd annual AIDS Walk for Life held in Vancouver, Sep 21.

“We’re an international embarrassment, not only on AIDS, but on climate change, on Kyoto and on having rescinded when Canada practically wrote the UN Convention on the Rights of Indigenous People,” asserted Hedy Fry, Liberal candidate for Vancouver-Centre.

Following the walk in Stanley Park, Fry said the Conservative Party’s reluctance to be more proactive regarding the National AIDS Strategy is concerning.

“We [Canadians] have to be afraid — very afraid,” she warned. “We need to be able to get people to understand that HIV and AIDS are not over and that 4,000 new cases a year is not good enough.”

Dr Julio Montaner also blames the current federal government for an overall lack of leadership regarding the National AIDS Strategy.

The president of the International AIDS Society and leader in AIDS research says the fight against HIV/AIDS should be executed at a national level.

But Philippe Brideau, media relations advisor to the Public Health Agency of Canada, told Xtra West via email that when it comes to AIDS funding, Canada is not the international disgrace some are claiming.

According to Brideau, Canada is one of the leading donors in the global response to HIV and AIDS and over the past three years has provided approximately $515 million in funding to support HIV/AIDS initiatives in the developing world. An additional $45 million in international funding was announced in August at the International AIDS Conference held in Mexico.

At that same conference, Health Minister Tony Clement announced a $2.6 million dollar increase for Canada’s AIDS Community Action Program (ACAP) over the next two years.

The increase falls below levels recommended by the Ontario AIDS Network (OAN), and represents an approximate 13 percent decrease from the funding proposed by the Public Health Agency of Canada two years ago.

“In my view we have made significant progress but we continue to remain long on promises but short on delivery,” OAN executive director Rick Kennedy told Xtra West’s Toronto sister paper, Xtra.

The additional $2.6 million means that AIDS service organizations across Canada can access a total of $12.1 million dollars per year over the next two years.

Canadian AIDS organization representatives who met with Clement at the conference in Mexico expressed their dismay at the government’s funding levels.

Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said Clement denied there was a shortfall, saying that the money had been directed to the government’s HIV Vaccine Initiative.

“There’s a united front between scientists and community groups,” says Elliott. “We made it very clear that the community supports having money for the HIV vaccine initiative… but not at the expense of community groups.”

Montaner agrees that a separate budget should have been allocated for the HIV Vaccine Initiative.

He also challenges the Conservative Party’s opposition to Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection facility.

“We need aggressive campaigns and substantial care for people with HIV across the country. There is no centralized effort,” Montaner says, adding that the way in which the party has handled the issue of AIDS, the sex trade and drug addiction in this country is shameful.

In his May 29, 2008 address to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, Clement said harm reduction is not the answer and programs that support supervised injection divert dollars away from treatment.

“I believe we can do better and we must,” Clement said. “We can do better than simply warehousing people addicted to drugs for palliative care…

“For the poorest of Canadians, who live in conditions of extreme poverty, enslaved by an addiction from which full recovery is possible, we have been offering supervised injection, needle exchanges and crack pipes. We have been offering drug maintenance rather than drug treatment. We have been sending a message: ‘We have given up on you. We do not expect you to recover.'”

Critics of the government’s National Anti-Drug Strategy say the Conservative Party’s approach to addiction, and failure to address the health crisis in communities where HIV risks are highest, is not only draconian but allude to intolerance and class stratification due to the nature of the disease.

“Harper doesn’t get it. Because he cannot get over the fact that HIV predominantly affects the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, gay people, injection drug users — he has a problem with the fundamentals. This is not about discrimination against those at risk, this is about embracing them,” Montaner says.

“If this was breast cancer or prostate cancer it would be a disaster. We would have a national campaign.”

Requests for further information from the Conservative Party headquarters and the Prime Minister’s office were ignored before press time.

— With files from Krishna Rau and Douglas Boyce