Vancouver has reached a tipping point in the battle against HIV. It has the treatments, the expertise and the testing available to spur “the beginning of the end of HIV,” according to a new campaign launched this summer.
Providence Health Care, Vancouver Coastal Health and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) are trying to mobilize everyone who has ever had sex to get an HIV test. Organizers launched CHANGE HIVSTORY on July 18th in downtown Vancouver, a bold effort that aims to make Vancouver the epicenter of a movement to change history and help bring an end to the spread of HIV.
While currently focused on Vancouver, BC, CHANGE HIVSTORY could eventually target the estimated 3,500 people in British Columbia who are infected with HIV but don’t know it yet. While health officials in BC have reduced the spread of HIV over the last two decades by testing known high-risk people and placing those infected on HIV treatment, the number of new cases in BC has plateaued, as it has elsewhere in Canada. Further progress in stopping the spread of HIV requires a change in the paradigm of testing, and recommending a test to every adult who has ever had sex. This will help find those infected who may not know they were at risk, or whose health care provider is unaware of their risk.
By identifying those infected as early as possible and providing them with life-saving treatment that also dramatically reduces their risk of transmitting HIV to others, the spread of HIV can be slowed significantly in the community. This will change the nature of the HIV epidemic.
The campaign builds on the momentum created by It’s Different Now, an HIV awareness drive launched last fall that helped increase testing rates in Vancouver, by sharing the dual messages that HIV can affect anyone who has ever been sexually active, and that HIV is no longer a disease to be feared, with a poor prognosis. HIV treatment was revolutionized by the introduction of Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART). People with HIV who take their medication every day and look after their health are much less likely to transmit the disease and can enjoy a near normal lifespan.
A key objective of the campaign is to reduce the stigma associated with HIV testing, not only amongst the public but also health care providers. A parallel education initiative will explain the rationale for routine HIV testing to physicians, and provide them with the tools needed to incorporate testing into their practices.
CHANGE HIVSTORY is a social marketing campaign, including a three minute video posted on the It’s Different Now website, that aims to educate and encourage people to get tested. The video begins by showing pivotal moments in history where change occurred, including the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, and the fight for equal rights for women and the gay community. It then outlines the need to change history again by ending HIV, and how close we are to accomplishing this.
The video can be found at: http://itsdifferentnow.org/.
The social marketing campaign also features $500,000 in print advertising and TV and radio commercials. However, organizers have teamed up with several media companies to leverage sponsorship. Many media organizations have donated air-time or ad space to promote the video and the message that Vancouver can make HIVSTORY.
CHANGE HIVSTORY is part of the BC-CfE pioneered “Treatment as Prevention” strategy of which STOP HIV/AIDS (Seek and Treat for Optimal Prevention of HIV/AIDS) is one component. STOP HIV/AIDS is a four-year, $48-million pilot program funded by the British Columbia Ministry of Health to improve access to HIV testing, treatment, and support services in Vancouver and Prince George, BC.
An important part of this effort is a program to offer HIV testing to all patients who visit a hospital in Vancouver, including those arriving in the emergency department. Patients are given information about HIV and HIV testing so they can make an informed choice. The test is added to regular blood work already done on these patients. St. Paul’s Hospital made history in June when it became the first emergency department in Canada to offer routine HIV testing to almost every patient. The program is currently offered in many departments across the hospitals in the city of Vancouver.
Health officials believe that because the British Columbia government funds access to HAART for all those infected, it is the best place to begin the final battle to end the spread of HIV. Not all provinces in Canada currently cover the costs associated with HAART.
While the campaign is currently focused on Vancouver and Prince George, the goal is to see success that can translate across the country, the continent and the world. This pilot project aims to lead the way for others to follow.