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International HIV/AIDS conference in Vancouver closes on a hopeful note

The eighth international HIV/AIDs conference wrapped up in Vancouver this week, with good news for medicine and public health. Thirty years ago, AIDS was essentially considered a death sentence, but major advancements over the past few decades have made it possible for people to not only live with the disease but to thrive.

Anti-retroviral drugs, early treatment, preventative strategies and other advancements have greatly improved both the quality of life and lifespan for people living with HIV and AIDS. While there are still challenges for people with HIV, such as greater risk of cardiovascular and renal issues, advanced aging and a higher likelihood of developing some cancers, the progress brings hope where there was once very little.

Two studies presented at the conference focused on starting drug therapy before AIDS symptoms appear or before white blood cells fall beneath a certain threshold. The results were promising, as the preventative therapy was shown to delay AIDS-related symptoms and death.

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In addition to progress made in treating people with HIV and AIDS, advancements have also been made in preventing transmission to babies born to infected mothers. Canada has essentially eliminated the incidence of mothers transmitting the disease to their infants. A big contributor to this success is the fact that many more mothers are now aware that they have HIV before they become pregnant, allowing for precautions to be implemented before birth.

If anti-retroviral drugs are given to mothers at least a month before giving birth, the baby has a very low chance of contracting the disease. “I’ve seen hundreds of babies at this point, and none have been infected. It’s only the babies where mom’s virus isn’t suppressed at delivery — because of not enough time on treatment or not knowing the diagnosis — where there’s a real risk of transmission,” Dr. Jason Brophy, chair of the Canadian Pediatric and Perinatal AIDS Research Group, told CBC News.

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Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, hopes to see an end to the AIDS pandemic by 2030. The United Nations triple-90 goal will help lead the effort in getting us there. That means by 2020, 90 per cent of individuals are aware of their HIV status, 90 per cent of those infected are on anti-retroviral therapy, and 90 per cent of those being treated are showing undetectable viral loads.

“It is critically important that this effort be sustained … We need to be persistent, and if we are persistent, we are going to see the end of the pandemic [by 2030],” Dr. Montaner told CBC News.

The progress for both people with AIDS and for babies born to infected mothers is hopeful, but several hurdles still lie ahead. Continuing to reach marginalized groups, like the Aboriginal population, to ensure they get proper antenatal care is one priority. In addition, millions of people around the world still have no access to anti-retroviral drugs. A global response is critical to combatting the disease, as more than half of infected mothers are foreign born.

More: 21 Staggering HIV/AIDS facts that prove why awareness is still so important

A push for prevention, more awareness, early intervention and better access to necessary drugs will continue to improve the fight against AIDS. What has been accomplished in only a few decades is a huge achievement, and we’re encouraged by where we’ll be a few decades from now.

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