Homosexual men, bisexuals, sex workers are high risk for HIV/AIDS
February 5, 2013
Homosexual men, bisexuals, sex workers are high risk for HIV/AIDS

Health officials from various organizations gathered yesterday to discuss the way forward for dealing with HIV/AIDS in the country’s high-risk population.{{more}}

The group gathered at the Sunset Shores Hotel in Villa, where the theme “HIV Programming for Key Populations at Higher Risk of Infection” was discussed.

There were presentations by Kevin Farara, programme office of the Caribbean HIV AIDS Alliance (CHAA), Dr Denise Chevannes-Vogel, CCHAA Chief of Party, Verlene Saunders, director of the St Vincent Planned Parenthood Association, with the key note speech by Carl Browne, former director of the Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP).

Participants sought practical solutions to bringing counselling, testing and health care for the most at risk persons, that is, men who have sex with men (MSM), bisexuals, and sex workers.

Browne said these three sub categories represent the highest rates of HIV infection among the adult population, and hold the greatest propensity for spreading the disease.

“Thus, these key populations groups become central to any debate on and any meaningful response to the prevention and control of HIV.”

Browne added that the HIV landscape in St Vincent and the Grenadines has changed in very positive ways.

He said that as of 2001, the number of new HIV infections, and HIV transmissions from mother to child has been slashed significantly, and that there has been a 50 per cent decline in AIDS related deaths over the past decade in the Caribbean.

“Happily, contracting HIV is no longer as a mandatory death sentence … but the picture has not been all glorious. We still have mountains to climb, many turbulent waters to navigate, many social and cultural hurdles to scale…” Browne noted.

He highlighted that these setbacks include the fact that HIV prevalence rate among the general population still hovers around 1 per cent, which remains second to sub-Saharan Africa, two times higher than North America and Eastern Europe, and five times as high as Western and central Europe.

“In a related aspect, fully 70 per cent of the sexually active population in the Caribbean does not know their HIV status.

“Put another way, only one in three sexually active adults you would run into on the street … are confident of their HIV status.

“It therefore begs the question of how accurate the advertised prevalence rate of 1 per cent really is. Could it in reality be higher? And if so, how much higher? Food for thought I would suggest.”

Browne strongly suggested that five “innovative and comprehensive strategies and approaches” should be considered, for reaching the most vulnerable population groups.

These include testing and counselling, HIV treatment and care, prevention from sexual transmission, home-grown research and challenging stigma and discrimination.

“The evidence is clear that stigma and discrimination not only incapacitates and undermines the prospects and well-being of persons infected with HIV, but is also one of the biggest drivers of the epidemic among MSM and sex workers.

“Fear of being stigmatized and ostracized drives these key populations groups underground, as they seek desperately to protect their sexual identity and sexual practices, and, in some cases, their lives.

“Many of these persons often languish with the disease without the lifesaving treatment and care that is within their reach, for the fear of the societal venom that often accompanies such disclosure,’ Browne said. (JJ)