April 21, 2006
Can we do more to reduce the infection and stigma of HIV/AIDS?

by Sean Rose

The HIV/AIDS epidemic has become a major development problem affecting every country worldwide. In the Caribbean alone the epidemic is second in magnitude only to that of Sub-Saharan Africa where thousands of people become infected everyday.

According to the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre (CAREC), the first reported case of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean was discovered in 1982 in Jamaica. By the end of 1999, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) estimated that in the Caribbean 1.96% of adults in the most sexually active age group were living with HIV/AIDS.{{more}}

By 2005, approximately 30,000 people in the Caribbean were infected with HIV. For those who couldn’t care too much about the severity of this crucial problem the figures alone should speak for themselves. Last year (2005) 24,000 people died from HIV/AIDS in the region alone. In the Bahamas, Haiti and Trinidad & Tobago more than three percent of the population is HIV positive.

To date, 40.3 million people around the world are infected with AIDS, an increase of 7.5% since the last report two years ago, including 2 million children. Twenty-five million people have died from AIDS throughout the world since the 1980’s.

These facts ought to be startling enough to convince all that new and innovative anti-HIV/AIDS campaigns are required to capture the attention of everyone.

There is a dire need for more interactive outreach programmes to expose the seriousness of HIV/AIDS in every Caribbean country. In general, there is a lack of debates on HIV/AIDS in most Caribbean countries.

Fundamental issues such as the link between human rights and health should be given more attention. In the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the promotion and protection of human rights are necessary to achieve the public health goals of reducing vulnerability to HIV infection. It is high time we begin as a people to realize that scorning some one whom we suspect of having Aids would not prevent the disease from spreading among us.

If there is going to be any meaningful change in the behavioral pattern of Vincentians, more broadly speaking, Caribbean people towards HIV/AIDS, more emphasis should and must be placed on reducing the stigma attached to people living with AIDS (PLWHA’s).

I still hear outrageous statements being made by some Vincentian young men in particular, such as “We like it raw”, while others usually quip, “Me hah fuh dead any way, some ting hah fuh carry me home”. These verbal expressions are deeply rooted in a behavioral pattern that has to be tackled with immediacy. With such major issues to confront, can we look forward to a reduction in the rates of HIV infection in the Caribbean?

Regrettably, while CAREC along with other regional institutions and Governments are dedicating significant resources to control the spread of the AIDS virus, there still exists a phenomenon which can be described as an “I don’t care attitude”. Hence, the need for more consistent outreach programmes to impact on the masses in a meaningfull way, at varying levels of the social stratum, regionally.

“The regional Media organizations too have much catching up to do”. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines there is limited coverage on issues relating to HIV/AIDS. In a recent study carried out here, (SVG) between the months of January and April 2005, regarding the coverage of HIV/AIDS, Mr. Livingston White, lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica, in his capacity as Principal Investigator, outlined the lack of coverage given by our own Media to issues related to HIV/AIDS.

“Regarding the coverage of HIV/AIDS, the study revealed that negative terminology was often associated with the description of the virus and the disease. The coverage of HIV/AIDS although mostly localised, was found to be highly event-oriented,” White stated.

The Social Marketing Lecturer added, “the main finding is that health-related content does not account for a large majority of the media content sampled in the three months as only 16 % or 139 of all stories actually dealt with health (Searchlight Newspaper – Friday, December 13th , 2005-SVG Media fails HIV/AIDS Test).

In my humble opinion, issues related to HIV/AIDS within the various islands of the Caribbean should be publicised in the same consistent manner as many consumer goods such as Cellular phones. Undeniably, the homophobias among Caribbean men in particular, strengthened by the stigma towards AIDS and PLWHA’s are major stumbling blocks towards such efforts at reducing the spread of the virus. But we have to take the bull by the horns lest we lose our most productive workforce.

Many people with a clouded view often ask. Can we truly reduce the spread of the AIDS pandemic here in the Caribbean?

The answer is an emphatic yes we can! However, CAREC believes much more effort is needed. It has cited in particular the achievements of the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Barbados, where infection levels, including mother to child transmission of HIV have been on the decline over the past few years. CAREC says the improvements indicate the possibility of slowing the growth of the epidemic and gradually turning the situation around in the Caribbean.

The regional epidemiology centre also indicates that such achievements have been as a result of action that included improved prevention efforts, the expansion of voluntary counseling and testing services, provision of anti retroviral regimens to persons living with HIV/AIDS and enhanced clinical management and treatment of AIDS at the community level.

The role of Governments and civil society in the fight against HIV/AIDS has become even more critical. National programmes against HIV/AIDS must continue to promote all forms of prevention including proper condom use and reduction in the rates of promiscuity. The ABC approach is still very applicable: Abstain, Be faithful and very importantly, Condomize.