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Let us strive to stop AIDS!

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AIDS has killed more than 25 million people worldwide, making it one of the most destructive epidemics in recorded history. This fact by itself is the predominant reason why today as World AIDS day and everyday likewise should be an opportunity for us to promote the theme of accountability, responsibility and campaign to stop AIDS. Originating at the 1988 World Summit of Ministers of Health on Programmes for AIDS Prevention, this day was designated as such, in an effort to generate a greater public awareness of, and engagement with, the problem of AIDS here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and worldwide.{{more}}

According to the latest figures published earlier this week in the joint United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organisation 2006 AIDS Epidemic Update, an estimated 39.5 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, with 4.3 million new infections in 2006. In 2006, 2.9 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses. Sub-Saharan Africa alone has 2.8 million of those new cases. On a regional scale, we in the Caribbean have 330,000 infected people. After Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean has a higher HIV prevalence than any other area of the world.

If we were to compare the nations of the Caribbean, one would find that Haiti has the highest HIV prevalence in the entire western hemisphere. At the other extreme, Cuba and Puerto Rico both have one of the lowest, with The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana all being heavily affected. St. Vincent and the Grenadines has documented a total of 817 adults and 41 children infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus over the last 2 decades. What this should translate into for us is that, Vincentians and people in the Caribbean region are not immune to this problem, hence we have a role to play, a vital one, one that cannot be ignored.

The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines has shown its commitment in the prevention and control of the disease. The country’s progress report for 2006 states, “the country is moving towards the three guiding principles of national responses and has established the one national HIV/AIDS coordinating body; the one agreed action framework and the one agreed monitoring and evaluation system.” These principles of national responses are vital in preventing and controlling the spread of the disease, and their implementation are proof that as a nation we are on tract. In 2005, national funds amounted to 1.2 million dollars. This was spent on prevention and training programmes geared toward the identified at-risk population of youths.

As we are now living in the 21st century, if we as a Vincentian people are to truly engage the problem and make an unequivocal difference, it would require that we not focus and not highlight the shame or disgrace attached to something regarded as socially unacceptable and dismiss unsubstantiated fears that the HIV infection can be passed on through everyday contact. Regrettably, stigma and discrimination related to HIV are extremely common in our communities to the extent that in some cases, prejudice towards people living with HIV is linked with homophobia, as we often associate HIV with homosexuality, despite the fact that the majority of infections occur through heterosexual sex.

Numerous are the effects of this prejudice. HIV/AIDS infected persons and their families endure a great deal of stress and suffering, often facing social isolation and harassment on a daily basis. On the other hand, stigma stops people who are at risk of infection from accessing information on prevention and testing, and reduces people’s willingness to buy condoms or alter their sexual behaviour. It also prevents people from accessing counselling services, support groups and treatment. As stated by the progress report, “There is still adverse social reaction, stigmatization and discrimination against HIV/AIDS clients. These remain obstacles to prevention and care. Some acts of discrimination have been loss of jobs, denial of housing and expulsion from school. There are several initiatives being undertaken to address stigma and discrimination in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”

These initiatives include but are not limited to the implementation of education and training programmes related to HIV/AIDS, discrimination, and human rights for persons living with HIV/AIDS and vulnerable groups, working in close collaboration with government departments and private institutions to address the causes and consequences of HIV related stigma and discrimination and ongoing reform of legislation to prohibit discrimination. Should this stigma and discrimination continue, it would have a more devastating effect.

Impact of HIV/AIDS on the family as a social institution is devastating worldwide and the effects are pronounced here in our nation similarly. More than half of adults living with the virus in the Caribbean are women. “Parental deaths due to HIV/AIDS have resulted in many orphans in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Data collection for this service area was recently established and shows a documented total of 102 orphans for the years 2003 – 2005,” according to the progress report. This changes the structure of the family as consequently there is no leader of the home. Economically, it deepens the roots of poverty, as the family looses a breadwinner. The children in these HIV/AIDS affected households often must assume the decision-making and other responsibilities within families and households because there are no alternatives. In order to support the family, some children even engage in income-generating work. In so doing, many quit school and jeopardise their own health and developmental needs to take on roles as parent and provider.

The political leaders, civil society organizations and institutions such as the church, school and family of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, must continue to develop their sense of joint identity and common purpose in this struggle as this pandemic affects the world including our nation. Let us according to the World ADIS Campaign’s theme strive to, stop AIDS and keep the promise as the future of St.Vincent and the Grenadines depends on it.

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