November 30, 2012

Getting to zero

Fri, Nov 30, 2012

The 2012 World Aids Day report shows that the efforts being made in the fight against HIV and AIDS around the world and here in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) are producing remarkable results. Tomorrow is World Aids Day, and this year, the day is being commemorated under the theme “Getting to Zero”, with the focus being on zero new infections and zero AIDS deaths.{{more}}

Thirty years ago when we first became aware of the then mysterious killer disease, such a goal could not even be conceived. However today, the landscape is much different and there is real basis for optimism.

In 2011, there were 700,000 fewer new HIV infections across the world than in 2001. Additionally, the latest data show that a 50 per cent reduction in the rate of new HIV infections (HIV incidence) has been achieved in 25 low- and middle-income countries between 2001 and 2011. More than half of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa where the majority of the new HIV infections occur.

Closer to home, we have also been achieving remarkable results. The region of the world with the sharpest declines in number of new HIV infections is the Caribbean, where there has been a drop of more than 42 per cent. In Suriname, the rate of new HIV infections fell by 86 per cent and in the Dominican Republic by 73 per cent. A more than 50 per cent decline was observed in the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize and Haiti. In Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, new HIV infections fell by more than one third.

In SVG, statistics from the National AIDS Secretariat (NAS) show that there has also been a decrease in the number of persons testing positive for HIV in SVG. As of September this year, 23 persons tested positive for HIV, with 16 AIDS related deaths. In 2011, the HIV count was 45 and the death count was 22, with a 63 to 28 margin in 2010. The decline in the death count is as a result of the widespread availability of antiretroviral therapy. According to UNAIDS, in the last 24 months, the number of people accessing treatment has increased by 63 per cent globally.

Despite these positive strides, there is still a long way to go to get to zero. The fact is there are still many areas of the world where HIV incidence is increasing and although worldwide the rate of new infections is falling, in 2011 there were 2.5 million new infections.

The key to achieving zero new infections is behavior change, not just in relation to our sexual practices, but also in our attitudes to persons living with HIV and AIDS.

For those who cannot or do not want to abstain, the only options are faithfulness and if not, strict condom use. Those already infected with HIV have a responsibility not only to practice safe sex, but also to inform their sexual partners of their status.

Almost as large a problem as sexual irresponsibility is the stigma associated with having tested HIV positive. The fear and hostility from loved ones, community members and employers which sometimes come with a positive HIV status, deter some from getting tested, and for those who test positive, stigma makes them wary of informing the persons who need to know and reluctant to modify their own behavior to protect others.

It would therefore seem that the goal of getting to zero rests largely in the hands of our young people, who have never lived in a world where HIV did not exist. Their responses to the challenges of HIV/AIDS should hopefully be more appropriate and helpful in getting to zero.

Although overall, new HIV infections among young people aged 15-24 fell by nearly 27 per cent globally between 2001 and 2011, and by 35 per cent here in the Caribbean, young people still account for 40 per cent of all new adult HIV infections around the world.

This is a frightening and shocking statistic, which should be of concern to everyone. Let us however use the positive strides being made to provide the impetus needed to redouble our efforts to get the message out.