05/27/2014 03:35 EDT | Updated 07/27/2014 05:59 EDT

AIDS ward closes in B.C. as death rate plummets

A dramatic fall in the number of cases of AIDS in B.C. means a Vancouver hospital ward that once treated those dying of the disease will be repurposed to treat those living with HIV.

The repurposing of Ward 10C at St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver marks one more step toward an "AIDS-free B.C.,"  Premier Christy Clark said on Monday morning at the special announcement.

Ward 10C was originally opened as an AIDS ward in February 1997 during the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the city. At the time, approximately one person per day was dying from HIV/AIDS.

But since then, early diagnosis and advances in treatment have led to a dramatic increase in the survival rates, according to B.C.'s Health Minister Terry Lake.

“British Columbia’s dedication to the fight against HIV/AIDS has meant that we have reduced AIDS cases in Vancouver by over 80 per cent since 1996,” said Lake.

“There was a time when there weren’t enough beds to care for the numbers of people living with HIV,” said Michel Sidibé, UN under-secretary general and executive director for UNAIDS, who joined the announcement at St. Paul's with Dr. Julio Montaner, the director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

“The pioneering work of Dr. Montaner and the leadership of British Columbia have helped to ensure that people living with HIV live longer, healthier lives and as a result HIV clinics are starting to close. This is an important milestone towards ending the AIDS epidemic,” said Sidibé.

“It was not that long ago that HIV/AIDS was a death sentence, and those who came to this ward at St. Paul’s were here to die,” said Dr. Montaner.

“Today, Ward 10C will provide treatment, support and care for those living with HIV-related issues. We have worked hard to make this day happen, and I commend everyone who has supported our efforts.”

Last month the B.C. government announced all adult residents will be offered free voluntary HIV testing every five years or less, in order to help identify an estimated 1,500 people in the province who are unaware they have the disease.