07/23/2012 01:29 EDT | Updated 09/21/2012 05:12 EDT

AIDS Doctor Says Political Will Key To End Epidemic

The tools to end AIDS already exist, say doctors attending the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.

"We don't have a cure yet, but the tools in the tool box to control this epidemic are essentially at our fingertips," Dr. Evan Wood, lead researcher at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said in an interview with CBC News Network on Monday.

"We need the political will to look at some of the political strategies that are hobbling this effort — and I include in that the war on drugs — and to start employing these strategies that really can bring about an end of AIDS."

Wood, fellow B.C.-based doctor Julio Montaner, British billionaire Richard Branson and the former presidents of Brazil and Colombia called on world leaders to show leadership in ending AIDS by ending the war on drugs.

"One of the messages coming out of the conference is how putting energy into drug law enforcement and engaging in this cat-and-mouse game with drug addicts really contributes to the spread of HIV and does not reduce availability or use of drugs."

Wood argued that people addicted to intravenous drugs are driven underground to evade police and won't get tested for HIV. If they object to treatment or if it’s interrupted, then often their viral load will go up and they will spread the infection, he said.

Each patient with AIDS costs the Canadian taxpayer about $500,000 in medical costs, Wood estimated.

Also at the conference on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it's possible to virtually eliminate HIV-infected births, and to that end she announced $80 million US in new funding.

In total, Clinton announced more than $150 million US in funding to expand access to new drug treatments and voluntary male circumcision.

"Some days it feels like we're going to have to fight just to keep the funding at the level it's at today," billionaire Bill Gates told delegates. "And yet we need to put new patients on treatment."

"HIV may be with us into the future until we finally achieve a cure, a vaccine. But the disease that HIV causes need not be with us," Clinton said in announcing the funding.

An estimated eight million people in lower-income countries receive antiretroviral drugs, which the UN aims to raise to 15 million by 2015.

"We want to get to the end of AIDS," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. But "a lot of people, a lot of countries, a lot of regions have a lot to do."

Ottawa's approach

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq's office defended the government's approach to fighting AIDS.

"Our government is committed to addressing HIV/AIDS in Canada and is providing record amounts of funding to support research, vaccine development, public awareness, prevention, treatment, and support," the Health Ministry said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

At the Summit of the Americas in April, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters: "I think what everyone believes and agrees with, and to be frank myself, is that the current approach is not working, but it is not clear what we should do."

More than 20,000 people, including scientists, people living with HIV and policy-makers, are attending the meeting, which ends on Friday.