Prince George will be the site of one of two B.C. pilot projects to seek out and treat undiagnosed and untreated cases of HIV/AIDS.
The four-year, $48 million Seek and Treat project will focus on vulnerable, high-risk groups such as sex trade workers, injection drug users, and gay and bisexual men, said Northern Health medical director for the region Dr. Susan MacDonald.
“We’re very excited to have this opportunity to take part in the Seek and Treat HIV project,” MacDonald said. “It’s thought to be one of the first of its kind in the world.”
The Seek and Treat team with Northern Health will work with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul’s Hospital to provide highly-active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART) to more people in the North, she said. HAART treatment slows disease progression, extends life expectancy and significantly reduces HIV-related diseases and AID-related deaths.
Research by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS has shown treatment dramatically reduces the transmission rate as well.
“We look at treatment of HIV/AIDS in a chronic treatment model,” MacDonald said. “There is a need to treat the person as a whole.”
For many people there are barriers to testing or receiving treatment, she said.
“This pilot project is looking at ways to identify these individuals and reach them in a way that is accessible to them,” MacDonald said. “We’re looking for the best way to find people who may be at risk and offer them, through informed consent, to engage in testing.”
Northern Health plans to work with community organizations already working with HIV/AIDS patients and at-risk populations.
Although Prince George doesn’t have the same number of HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed as the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the number of diagnosed cases has doubled in recent years, MacDonald said.
“The mortality rate is higher for patients in the North, as well,” she said. ”
It is estimated 12,000 people in B.C. are living with HIV/AIDS and up to 27 per cent have not been diagnosed.
The program is currently in the initial stages, MacDonald said, and the details of how the outreach program will work are being developed.
“Most of this will be centred in Prince George, but will reach out to other communities in the North as well.”
The B.C. government has committed $48 million to the project over four years. In addition, pharmaceutical maker Merck has contributed $1.5 million for the evaluation of the project over three years.
The program is anticipated to prevent as many as 173 HIV infections over five years potentially saving $65 million in lifetime treatment costs.