On World AIDS Day, let's thank Dr. Julio Montaner and push for COVID-19 vaccines for sub-Saharan HIV sufferers

Vancouver researchers played a key role in helping to turn AIDS from a probably death sentence into a manageable, chronic disease

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      More than three decades before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was another viral scourge stalking the world.

      HIV, a.k.a. the human immunodeficiency virus, was killing gay men, hemophilia suffers, intravenous-drug users, and residents of southern African countries at frightening rates.

      By 2020, approximately 36.3 million people had been killed by this retrovirus.

      The first official reporting of what came to be known as AIDS occurred on June 5, 1981. That's when a research paper chronicled the symptoms of five gay men from 29 to 36 years old with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in Los Angeles.

      "The patients did not know each other and had no known common contacts or knowledge of sexual partners who had had similar illnesses," the paper stated. "Two of the 5 reported having frequent homosexual contacts with various partners. All 5 reported using inhalant drugs, and 1 reported parenteral drug abuse."

      Less than a month later, there was a report linking Kaposi's sarcoma and Pneumocystis pneumonia to 26 gay men in New York and California.

      By 1985, when actor Rock Hudson disclosed his AIDS diagnosis, the disease was dominating headlines around the world, in part because there was no cure. Blood-screening guidelines were issued but the death count continued to rise.

      From 1987 to 1992, AIDS was the leading cause of potential-years-of-life lost among men in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, according to a paper by Simon Fraser University health researcher Robert Hogg.

      The first substantial decline in AIDS deaths in the United States did not occur until 1997, largely thanks to highly active antiretrival therapy, a.k.a. HAART.

      And the king of HAART, according to a 2006 article in the Lancet, was none other than Vancouver physician Julio Montaner.

      He's executive director and physician-in-chief of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. 

      "Montaner's early research focused on the respiratory complications of AIDS and later shifted towards antiretroviral therapy for HIV infection," wrote Angela Pirisi in the Lancet. "In the mid 1990s, he championed the use of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), turning it into a standard of care for AIDS patients.

      "Another of Montaner's contributions has been setting up HIV/AIDS treatment cohorts and showing their role in developing evidence of clinical outcomes."

      Thanks to Montaner and other researchers, AIDS has been transformed from a probable death sentence to a chronic disease.  He's long advocated treatment as prevention to suppress viral loads.

      Since the peak of 1997, new infections of HIV have fallen by 52 percent, according to UN AIDS. Mortality from the disease has fallen 53 percent among women and 41 percent among men and boys since 2010.

      Wednesday (December 1) marks World AIDS Day with events planned around the globe. It comes a month after Health Canada approved the country's first self-test for HIV.

      It was created by Richmond-based bioLytical Laboratories. For more information, visit the company's website.

      Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the risk for unvaccinated people with HIV.

      That's because with their immune-system challenges, they have higher comorbidities from the novel coronavirus than those who don't have HIV.

      "Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two thirds (67%) of people living with HIV," UN AIDS states on its website. "But the COVID-19 vaccines that can protect them are not arriving fast enough. In July 2021, less than 3% of people in Africa had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine."