12/01/2015 10:52 EST | Updated 12/01/2016 05:12 EST

How We Can Get To Zero On AIDS

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Cork, Ireland

The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is a great place to visit to learn about the players who earned their place in history after long and illustrious careers. However, few Canadians may know that there is also a Medical Hall of Fame and one of the most prominent players in it is Dr. Bernard Belleau.

Working out of Montreal's McGill University during the eighties, Dr. Belleau was instrumental in developing a principal weapon in the battle against HIV/AIDS. His research led to the development of the antiviral medication known as 3TC (Lamivudine), which combined with low doses of another medication, AZT, has been credited with saving millions of lives.

Dr. Belleau's innovation should be kept in mind as we mark World AIDS Day on December 1st. For the past three years the day has been themed, "Getting to zero," which means zero new HIV Infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.

Since the development of 3TC, much more has been learned about the HIV/AIDS virus and new medications have been approved, which have led to remarkable gains in life expectancy and quality of life for HIV positive people. CATIE, an organization that provides information on AIDS research gives much of the credit for this dramatic improvement in health to the emergence of combination Anti-Retroviral Therapy or ART.

According to the latest research cited by CATIE, "Overall the life expectancy for HIV-positive people has increased over the past decade and is approaching that of HIV-negative people." Tiko Kerr who was diagnosed with HIV three decades ago is a living testament to this remarkable progress. After accessing a new therapy in a clinical trial, Tiko, who was at deaths door, regained his health and was able to continue his creative work as a visual artist.

We are also seeing the emergence of new therapies that have the capacity to prevent HIV/AIDS.

The World Health Organization has developed guidelines for use of a daily, oral pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) which can prevent infection in an HIV-negative person. Clinical trials have demonstrated that when taken appropriately, the anti-HIV treatment can prevent infection. Research continues and currently there are about 44 new medicines and vaccines in the various stages of development including 25 antivirals, 16 vaccines and three cell/gene therapies.

Even with these promising new developments however, we cannot underestimate the challenges ahead in responding the AIDS epidemic.

More than 71,000 Canadians were estimated to be living with HIV in 2011 and there were 3,175 new HIV infections. About one quarter of HIV positive Canadians don't know they have the disease, which means we need to put strategies in place to raise awareness -- especially among high risk populations.

Worldwide, there are a staggering 36 million people living with AIDS. About 40 per cent of those people, including those in the most impoverished nations in Africa, now have access to antiretroviral therapy according to the World Health Organization. Although more must be done to improve access to ART, this represents substantial progress in the past few years.

The innovative pharmaceutical industry has developed many partnerships within Canada and across the world to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS. Our sister organization, the IFPMA points out that most companies have developed programs to broaden access and provide medicines at low cost or no cost.

From millions to zero will take concerted efforts by all partners in the fight against HIV/AIDS and our industry is stepping up to do its share. Our members are working in over 60 partnerships globally to combat HIV/AIDS with programs ranging from stopping transmission of HIV from mother to child to fighting fakes and accelerating access.

Access to new treatments is a crucial part of the solution but we also need to improve prevention through education and awareness as well as ending the discrimination and stigma associated with AIDS in Canada and around the world.

We are still a long way from reaching zero, but I am confident that one day we can get there.

When we do, it will be because of those who dedicated their careers to eradicating HIV/AIDS including researchers like Dr. Bernard Belleau.



World AIDS Day