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World AIDS Day 2008

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Many countries around the world recognized World AIDS Day on Monday, 1st December, 2008. South Africans held a fifteen minute silence in remembrance of the victims of the disease. At 5.7 million, or one in 5 persons, South Africa had the highest number of HIV infected persons in the world. Even as they paused in recognition of the enormity of the problem at hand, we see where leaders have failed to act in the best interest of the country.{{more}} Thabo Mkebi, successor to Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa, was forced to resign from public office. His denial of the role of anti-retroviral medication in the treatment of HIV/AIDS was thought to be responsible for the deaths of over 300,000 South Africans and 35,000 infants who were infected with HIV. This highlights the fact that despite advances in medical knowledge, the education of our people and good governance still play an invaluable role.

The World Health Organization established World AIDS Day in 1988. World AIDS Day provides governments, national AIDS programs, faith organizations, community organizations, and individuals with an opportunity to raise awareness and focus attention on the global AIDS epidemic. In 2007, the estimated number of persons living with HIV worldwide was 33.2 million and there were 2.7 million people newly infected.

Statistics disclosed on the radio programme Star Issues on Sunday, hosted by Cerlian Russell, revealed that in the last 5 years (2004-2008) the incidence of HIV positive persons was 108,62,82,85 and 49 in the respective years. This programme highlighted the everyday challenges, concerns and questions faced by persons living with HIV. Our work has just begun. We must continue to educate, motivate and mobilize the Vincentian community in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

One critical aspect which must be addressed is the issue of how do we avoid discriminating against persons living with HIV. The first and most important step in the fight against discrimination must be founded on a well planned programme geared at educating the nation on the facts of the disease; the methods of transmission, including the recent increase in its spread among homosexual and bisexual men; how this spread may be minimized or avoided; treatment options, as well as the approach to HIV as a chronic medical illness and the possibility of aging with HIV. The many myths surrounding transmission of the disease have led to a high degree of discrimination particularly in employment relationships between employers and their employees who have contracted the disease.

Mobilizing youth is the best way forward. It is a practical approach to fighting the social stigma of HIV/AIDS. Experience from many countries has proven that a failure to change the general attitude of the community, especially that of senior citizens, is critical. We must encourage our senior citizens to adopt a non-discriminatory approach to persons living with HIV/AIDS. The social stigma tagged to HIV infection affects the whole family and results in disastrous effects on the daily life and social relations of a person living with the disease. Efforts to have our communities better understand the disease and better accept the victims must be ongoing.

The Government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines continues to work with local, regional and international partners in the fight against the HIV pandemic and has already seen tremendous gains over the past two years. Through the World Bank Project, the Government has spent four million dollars on the construction of the National AIDS Secretariat; the refurbishment of health centers and schools to facilitate the Voluntary Counseling and testing programme. The Government also continues to implement a well structured, planned and conceived National Strategic Plan on HIV/AIDS.

As we recognise another World AIDS Day, let us use this occasion to upscale treatment and prevention services to ensure a comprehensive and sustainable response to HIV/AIDS. The government has recognized the problem and is working assiduously to ensure that the quest for real solutions is given the utmost priority in the nation’s health systems. Persons living with the condition should not be discriminated against in whatever form. Let all HIV/AIDS information be presented in ways that do not reinforce stigma. Our schools, churches, community organizations, private sector and NGOs must play a pivotal role in the HIV/AIDS education revolution and ending the stigmatization. Let us play our part!

Saboto Caesar is a Lawyer and Unity Labour Party Senator.

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