2 min

Feds betray AIDS strategy

No new funding in budget

AIDS activists feel betrayed that the recent federal budget contained no new spending to fight HIV/AIDS and warn that opportunities to tackle the epidemic and reduce infection rates are being lost.

Funding for the Canadian AIDS Strategy has been frozen for 11 years at $42.2 million a year. Anne McLellan, now deputy prime minister, received a standing ovation at last year’s Canadian AIDS Society annual meeting when, as health minister, she indicated she would advocate for a substantial increase.

Also last year, after hearing submissions from researchers, AIDS service organizations and people living with HIV/AIDS, the federal standing committee on health recommended an increase to $100 million a year.

“There is just a huge disappointment,” says Ralf Jurgen, of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, of the budget.

“It does not look good that Canada is hosting the 2006 International AIDS conference but it can’t seem to set any example,” says Gail Flintoft, chair of the Canadian AIDS Society board. “Indeed, we are behind other G-8 countries in per capita spending to fight AIDS.”

Jurgen says the value of AIDS strategy funding has been eroding even as needs have increased. The AIDS death rate has dropped dramatically, but people with HIV/AIDS are living longer, many in poverty and ill health, Flintoft says.

“As well, the face of the epidemic is changing and we need new strategies to address that. That means new money.” Meanwhile, she says people working in the field “are worn out and absolutely demoralized.”

Alarmingly, the rate of new infections – which averages about 4,000 a year in Canada – is not declining overall and is rising slightly in many at-risk groups.

“Britain and Australia have half the rate of new infections, for their population, as we have,” Jurgen says. If Canadian rates were cut in half, not only would fewer people be suffering but there would be an estimated healthcare cost savings of $1.5 billion over five years.

“Not spending money to fight AIDS is a false economy,” says Louise Binder, chair of the Canadian Treatment Action Council. “We were betrayed.”

Jurgen says activists had been working with Health Canada, reviewing the old plan and developing a new five-year strategic plan to address HIV/AIDS, for example setting targets to reduce new infections and increase the number of AIDS doctors.

The government document outlining some of the new approach was titled Leading Together, Flintoft notes, but with no funding, the plan will likely gather dust.

According to a Health Canada spokesperson, the AIDS strategy is being folded into the new federal public health agency, announced in the budget. The focus of that agency has, to date, publicly been on tackling SARS and Mad Cow Disease.

A key problem with shifting AIDS to the new agency is that “at a time when we need action and leadership to fight AIDS, the focus for at least a year will be on setting up a new bureaucracy,” argues Jurgen.