07/16/2012 04:46 EDT | Updated 09/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Washington, D.C. Declaration: Dr. Julio Montaner, AIDS Expert, Urges Canada's Leaders To Sign Declaration To Fight AIDS

VANCOUVER - A prominent AIDS expert in British Columbia is calling on the federal and provincial governments to sign a commitment to help end the epidemic of the disease.

The director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Dr. Julio Montaner, issued an open letter Monday calling on the prime minister, premiers and opposition leaders to sign the Washington, D.C., Declaration.

The document, which Montaner acknowledged holds no legal weight, is the official declaration of the upcoming International AIDS Conference, which will bring together 25,000 global leaders and AIDS experts when it begins in Washington next week.

Organizers are seeking to end the epidemic through a nine-point plan, including access to antiretroviral treatment and ending discrimination and stigmas related to AIDS.

In an open letter to Canada's political leaders, Montaner says the knowledge and tools to defeat the epidemic now exist. The will to do so, he writes, lies with the government.

"We have made great strides in HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention, but more needs to be done," Montaner writes.

"To curb HIV and reach the promise of an AIDS-free generation, we must ramp up and fully roll out treatment as prevention in Canada and around the world."

In an interview, Montaner pointed to successes on Canada's West Coast, where prevention of the virus has focused on harm reduction and education, as an example of how such an approach can work.

"Over the last few years, we have been able to document, in particular, that there has been a decrease in HIV/AIDS ... that was quite marked in B.C.," said Montaner.

He pointed to statistics that show new AIDS diagnoses are down by more than 85 per cent in British Columbia, from the peak in 1996.

But he also noted other parts of Canada, particularly Saskatchewan, have seen an increase in HIV/AIDS rates, and he would like to see the West Coast strategy implemented across the country.

Despite Montaner's enthusiasm, it's unclear whether the federal government will sign the document.

A written response from Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq's office boasted of the Canadian government's role at the conference and in AIDS prevention, but only said the minister would review the declaration.

"Our government is committed to addressing HIV/AIDS in Canada and is providing record amounts of funding to support research, vaccine development, public awareness, prevent treatment and support," said the emailed statement.

"In part, because of the leadership and efforts of our government, the issue of AIDS in aboriginal populations will be a topic at the International Aids Conference for the first time ever. The minister looks forward to a productive conference and will review the declaration in due course."

Montaner said the federal government should be concerned because the illness affects communities across Canada and signing the declaration would show the country's dedication to fighting the virus.

"You can prevent death, you can prevent morbidity and you can stop transmission," said Montaner.

"You can deliver on an AIDS-free generation. All you need to do is implement what we already know and we get it done within your political term."

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