Martinuk: Let's do to cancer what we did to AIDS

The International AIDS Conference was held in
Washington, D.C., this past week. More than 25,000
scientists, activists and policymakers gathered
there to share new scientific developments,
dialogue about future pathways and objectives and,
frankly, drink a lot of beer.
The results are mostly predictable. The activists
were cranky and called for more money. The
researchers were optimistic and asked for more
research money. Policy-makers called for more
leadership and more money, primarily from the
United States. Two Canadian doctors called for an
international campaign to get world leaders to stop
the so-called war on drugs that they say is feeding
the AIDS epidemic - albeit, to a rather small extent
(as shown below).
The activists didn't forget Canada either. A number
of them protested against the federal government at
our nation's exhibition booth, boasting signs with
catchy slogans such as, "Harper's Cuts are Killing
In the midst of these calls for "more" of everything,
researchers presented a positive message about
efforts to eradicate the disease and began to talk
about a cure. They've had a number of significant
successes - HIV cocktails (antiviral drugs) are
keeping HIV-positive people healthy and active as
long as they take the pills; tests are being done on a
magical AIDS prevention pill; and an HIV vaccine is
in various stages of development. Science is
winning the battle - now researchers just need
political leadership that has the will to keep pouring
buckets of money into AIDS research for another
decade or so. And then Hillary Clinton will have her
AIDS-free generation.
But do we - or should we - have the political will to
press on at this rate?
AIDS research is truly a success story; one that
shows what can be accomplished with a great deal
of money ($17 billion globally last year alone), co-
ordination of research efforts and a single focus on
one disease. It is somewhat reminiscent of the
Human Genome Project, where researchers around
the world worked in a coordinated effort to
efficiently determine the sequence and map the
approximately 20 - 25,000 genes that comprise the
human genome.
Not only was it a huge milestone for medicine, but a
$3 billion budget and worldwide collaboration also
achieved the seeming impossible - they completed
a U.S. government project more than two years
early and under budget.
A cure for AIDS is close, but the reality that should
affect our investment of time and money is that
AIDS affects a relatively few number of people.
Perhaps it's time to move forward and fuel similar
collaborative attempts to discover cures for
diseases affect far more than a slim sector of the
population. Like . . . cancer.
In Canada, the last year for complete data is 2009
(Public Health Agency of Canada). That year, there
were 69,844 Canadians with HIV-AIDS, including 224
new cases of AIDS, 2,417 new cases of HIV-positive
and 25 deaths from AIDS. (In comparison, note that
3,890 died from suicide that year). Since 1980, 74.2
per cent of adult AIDS deaths have stemmed from
men having sex with men and 5.9 per cent from IV
drug use (another 4.1 per cent were both IV drug
users and men having sex with men).
In contrast, in 2009, there were 10 times as many
people living with cancer (695,000), 171,000 new
cases of cancer and 75,300 deaths. That year (as
now), cancer is the leading cause of premature
death in Canada (about 30 per cent of all deaths are
related to cancer).
The mortality and incidence math is simple - and
likely fairly representative of data since 2009.
Mortality of AIDS - 25; cancer - 75,300. Incidence of
AIDS - 2,641; cancer - 75,300.
All of the above suggests that, in Canada, the huge
effort to stamp out AIDS won't make a huge change
in our overall mortality rates. So why are we so
focused on AIDS research when scores of thousands
are dying from cancer?
Global and Canadian research objectives are clearly
out of perspective when one examines the
statistics. Before political leaders hand out more
money to AIDS research or, worse still, to fund a
challenge to the world's drug policies in the name of
AIDS, we should also consider that we live in a time
of scarce financial and medical resources. As such,
it may be time for the federal government to make
its investments into medical research and
researchers that will benefit the vast majority of
Susan Martinuk's column runs every second Friday.:::::

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