May 12, 2006
AIDS attitude adjustment required

According to the Ministry of Health and the Environment, at present, the life expectancy at birth in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is 74 years for women and 70 years for men. These figures compare very favourably with life expectancy in developed countries like the United States where life expectancy is 80 years and 74 years for women and men respectively.

Published estimates put our life expectancy ahead of many other Caricom nations including Barbados, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Kitts Nevis, Antigua and Trinidad and Tobago. We have been able to achieve this because of several factors including a very good primary health system. However, the gains we have made over the last four decades could be quickly eroded if the spread of HIV is not brought under control.{{more}}

Recently released statistics from the Ministry of Health show that for the first quarter of this year, 20 new persons tested positive for HIV/AIDS, and of these, 16 were between the ages of 20 and 44 years.

While HIV/AIDS is not now a leading cause of death among the general population (in 2004, the leading causes of death in St. Vincent and the Grenadines were diabetes, cancer, stroke and heart disease), the disease is the leading cause of death for persons between the ages of 25 and 44 here.

These are persons in the prime of their life, our productive sector, the backbone of society. Should this trend continue, the implications for our social security are enormous. With fewer workers making monthly contributions to the National Insurance Service, while the numbers of retirees increase, how will the system be sustained? Where will the nurses and policemen to provide essential services for an ageing population come from? What about the children forced to grow up without parents? Between 2003 and 2005, 102 children here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines were orphaned because of HIV/AIDS.

We only need to look at countries like Botswana to see the effect of HIV/AIDS on a country in a very short time. The life expectancy at birth there has plummeted in a short time to just 34 years for both men and women.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Health has indicated that the main challenge to bringing the spread of the disease under control is not promiscuity as many may think, but rather stigma. We all need to examine our attitudes to persons infected by HIV/AIDS because we, by our attitudes, might be creating the perfect environment for the rapid propagation of the disease.

How do we react when we learn that our child has an HIV infected classmate? If an employee or co-worker tests positive, are we supportive and compassionate, or do we shun him and assist his exit from the workplace? If we hear rumors that our doctor or fish vendor is HIV positive, do we cease doing business with them? Do we stop hanging out with a friend who is HIV positive because we feel people will think we are positive too?

These are the attitudes that drive the infection underground and make control and treatment difficult. People are understandably reluctant to find out their status and if they are positive, do not tell others of their status.

We understand that the Ministry of Health will soon be introducing rapid HIV/AIDS testing, where clients would be able to get results of an HIV test in 30 minutes. All adults should voluntarily get tested and encourage their friends and colleagues to do so. When people are aware of their status, they can begin treatment earlier, modify their behaviour to prevent the spread of the disease, and be around to contribute to the development of their family and country for much longer.

We sit in our ivory towers and turn our noses up at infected individuals just because we may be in a long-term committed relationship or because we are not homosexual males. The fact is, most persons in St. Vincent and the Grenadines who contract AIDS do so from heterosexual contact, and many of those infected believed they were in an exclusive relationship.

We therefore need to make a conscious effort to check our negative reaction to persons who reveal that they are HIV positive. We all know on an intellectual level that we cannot contract HIV from casual contact. We need now to act on the knowledge.

Health workers have indicated that many of the persons living with HIV/AIDS are trying to live responsibly. However, lack of support from the community, family, the church, peer groups and employers very often forces them out of their jobs, homes and communities and gives them few options for survival other than sexual activity that may be dangerous to themselves and others.

Our responsibility must therefore go beyond ensuring that we “protect ourselves.” That sort of protection is rather narrow and shortsighted, and unless we look at the bigger picture and modify our attitudes, we could be unwittingly contributing to tremendous social upheaval in the not too distant future in our country.