VANCOUVER – A new study says the early use of a special drug program to combat HIV can help reduce the death rate from the disease, and the program should be rolled out across Canada.

The study reviewed the use of a drug regime called HAART — or highly active antiretroviral therapy — for 7,638 people with HIV in B.C., Ontario and Quebec.

It found that the death rate among patients decreases along with the rate of HIV transmission when the drug mix is prescribed early.

Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, says HAART is being used too late for many patients and the rest of the country needs to follow B.C.’s lead in applying the therapy in conjunction with more testing for the disease.

He says aggressive testing combined with HAART has resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of new HIV cases diagnosed in B.C., from about 900 a year in the early 1990s to 248 last year.

The study will be presented at the 22nd Annual Canadian Conference on HIV/AIDS, which starts Thursday in Vancouver.