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BC expands treatment program by millions towards ending HIV/AIDS in province

VANCOUVER - Walter Hiebert was living in British Columbia in 1988 when he was diagnosed with HIV in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.

He remembers being afraid to open his local newspaper, which reported grim statistics daily as he watched friends around him die.

But almost a quarter-century after getting news that at the time could amount to a death sentence, the man teared up while joining a health ministry announcement that will help others like him.

The government says it's committing $19.9 million in new annual funding to expand a program aimed at ending HIV transmission altogether.

"If it wasn't for Dr. (Julio) Montaner, I wouldn't be alive today," Hiebert said Friday at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, referring to the man who has pushed B.C.'s research and treatment programs forward. "We live in a province that believes in evidence-based science."

The Stop HIV/AIDS program has dramatically slashed HIV infection rates in the province since starting up in 2009 with $48 million for a four-year pilot.

Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said Friday the Stop HIV/AIDS pilot, which initially targeted Vancouver and Prince George, is being rolled out throughout the province starting April 1.

The funding will go towards new outreach programs, new HIV testing methods, more front-line staff and will cover other prevention and treatment programs, MacDiarmid said.

Montaner, who leads the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said the program is working towards eliminating the disease altogether in the province, which is the only place in Canada showing a consistent decline in new HIV diagnoses.

He has long championed the strategy that "treatment is prevention," because it means the virus is stopped before it spreads.

"The time is right, the world is moving in this direction, we are years ahead of the rest of the world," Montaner said.

New HIV infections have decreased from about 900 new cases each year in the mid-1990s, to 289 new cases in 2011.

It's estimated 13,000 British Columbians have HIV/AIDS, while another 3,500 are likely unaware they are living with HIV.

The province offers free medication to infected residents, which a study shows has played a major role in the decline.

Earlier in the week, a team of researchers at the centre lead by Montaner called for a national strategy to provide free access to HIV treatment. They contend the approach will save millions in health-care costs.

The announcement was made on the eve of World AIDS Day.

Tamsyn Burgmann reports for The Canadian Press.

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