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B.C. urges HIV tests as check-up routine

VICTORIA - Once labelled absurd, the idea of mass testing of adults for HIV and AIDS is now part of the routine in British Columbia, proving the province is showing the world how to control and defeat the cruel disease, says the doctor leading the program.

The B.C. government announced Monday it will become the first jurisdiction in Canada to introduce guidelines for health-care providers to encourage all adult British Columbians to get tested for HIV.

"What at one time was perceived as a crazy idea — normalizing HIV testing — today becomes a reality for all British Columbians.," Dr. Julio Montaner, the director at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. "B.C. continues to be the model that the United Nations AIDS program is using to show the world how HIV and AIDS can be actually controlled and brought to its knees."

The guidelines, part of an effort to diagnose those infected with HIV sooner to get them life-saving treatment, include offering adult patients HIV testing as part of the regular routine of testing adult patients.

"These guidelines for health-care providers are part of overall good care for British Columbians and are also the start of an important conversation that will remove the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS, and identify all British Columbians who are living with a disease that they may not know that they have," said Health Minister Terry Lake.

The government decided to take the Vancouver area's four-year STOP HIV/AIDS program provincewide after discovering routine HIV testing found at least 60 people in early and late stages of HIV who were not linked to persons, practices or groups normally associated with HIV, Lake said.

"There are an estimated 12,000 British Columbians living with HIV, and many of them, estimated to be up to 3,500, do not know that they have this infection," said Lake. "We need to ensure that anyone infected with HIV gets the proper treatment."

The minister even rolled up his sleeves to volunteer a blood sample to test his HIV status.

"As Minister of Health, as a husband and a father, I believe that a healthy lifestyle includes regular testing, that's why today I will be getting my first HIV test," he said. "All of us should learn our HIV status."

Up until Monday, only pregnant women in B.C. were routinely offered HIV testing, and Lake said that program has come close to eliminating HIV transmissions from mothers to their children.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said the routine testing has the potential to eliminate the virus in B.C. and they're encouraging health-care providers to urge patients to take the test.

The guidelines recommend health-care providers offer HIV tests every five years to patients aged 18 to 70 years, tests every year for those who belong to high-risk HIV populations and testing once to patients 70 years or older.

"We thought it was very clear that it was really no longer sufficient just to provide the test only when an individual's risk factors or behaviours have been identified," said Kendall.

Montaner said the executive director of the United Nations AIDS program has scheduled a B.C. visit later this month to celebrate the province's achievements on the HIV/AIDS front.

"Stay posted because there's a lot more to come," he added.

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