03/16/2012 03:26 EDT | Updated 05/16/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS marks 20 years

The B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS is celebrating its 20-year anniversary on Friday, marking two decades on the leading edge of new treatments for the disease.

When the centre opened in 1992, B.C. was in the midst of an AIDS epidemic with 850 people becoming infected every year and people dying every day, according to the centre's director Dr. Julio Montaner.

Since then the centre has grown to become Canada's largest HIV research and treatment facility and its work has helped B.C. become the only province in the country where HIV infection rates are dropping.

Infection rates have since fallen by 65 per cent, thanks in part to new treatments and education programs developed by the centre.

"We have normalized the reproductive life and in doing all that we can at the same time, stop the spread of the disease," said Montaner.

Among other advances, the centre pioneered a treatment called active antiretroviral therapy — or HAART — which is now the gold standard for treating HIV around the world.

As a result HIV has changed to be a chronic but manageable illness in most cases, says Montaner.

"We now are able to tell people, 'Look it's different now,' You can identify people infected with HIV, you can offer them life-changing treatment, near a normal life, a very good quality of life."

According to the centre, an estimated 13,000 British Columbians are HIV infected, with close to 350 new cases reported each year.

As well, more than 3,200 cases of AIDS have been reported in the province, and a third of these individuals currently live with the disease.