You & Your Family
Friday, 29 June 2012 02:30
By Onika Campble
Antigua St. Johns - A combination of lifestyle, cultural and behavioural changes is what’s required to break the chain of transmission and social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS.
Those sentiments were echoed and re-echoed throughout the fifth launch of the annual Regional HIV Testing Day held at Scotiabank’s High Street branch on Wednesday under the theme “A Healthy Lifestyle Getting To Zero New HIV Infections.”
The first Regional HIV Testing Day was instituted in 2008 by the Caribbean Broadcasting Media Partnership (CBMP) on HIV and AIDS with the media mounting a month-long campaign; the exemplary support from the private-sector in Scotiabank offering its locations as some of the testing sites; and the delivery of the technical expertise of voluntary counseling and testing by the public sector through Ministries and Departments of Health, mobilized by Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP).
The Antigua & Barbuda launch was a collaboration of the AIDS Secretariat in the Ministry of Health, Social Transformation, Consumer Affairs & Local Government, Scotiabank, PANCAP and CBMP.
Between 9 am and 4 pm on Friday, June 29, Scotiabank’s High Street and Woods Centre locations will facilitate professionals from the Ministry of Health, the AIDS Secretariat and other participating agencies to conduct testing for HIV/AIDS, Acting Country Manager Gordon Julien disclosed during the launch. The tests are free and will be conducted in strict confidence.
This initiative has made a difference in the lives of many people in Antigua & Barbuda and across the region and emotions ran high as pleas were made for persons to get tested, adopt positive habits, and re-socialise children, friends, and partners with information that empowers them to make healthy choices.
Statistics from the AIDS Secretariat have shown that 107 persons were tested in 2008, the pilot year, with this number increasing to 232 in 2010. In 2011, for the first time testing was done in Barbuda under the Regional HIV Testing Day banner and the number of persons tested in Antigua and Barbuda almost doubled to 427, with 71 persons tested in Barbuda.
Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Social Transformation, and Consumer Affairs & Local Government Senator Malaka Parker emphasised that the issue of HIV/AIDS prevention is a complex problem and requires a multifaceted approach with particular attention to cultural norms.
“As individuals we must appreciate that HIV/AIDS depends not only on the individual, but on the collective. Your lifestyle choices can affect another, and it is when we assess the full aggregate of data concerning the spread of HIV/AIDS, we see patterns of increase that speak to particular demographics, that speak to a pattern of behaviour,” She said.
Senator Parker said there seems to be the feminisation of HIV/AIDS, with the rates of infection among young females being higher than among their male counterparts.
“I wonder if by this theme, we are in fact saying that it is the women and girls, through their lifestyles, have a greater disposition to contracting this disease.”
The HIV/AIDS pandemic has had a profound impact on the Caribbean region, and while the language surrounding HIV/AIDS is changing, the region continues to grapple with the reality that the Caribbean remains second in the world in terms of prevalence, to sub Saharan Africa.
This “unattractive ranking”, the Senator warns, must send a strong signal that our attitudes must display that we understand the gravity of our lifestyles. She concluded that, “it is therefore evident, based on the contrast between the two countries, that culture, socialisation and religion has an impact on how we address issues related to our reproductive health and rights...HIV/AIDS is in fact a lifestyle disease. As interesting l as it may seem on the face of it, we must accept that it is our attitudes towards sex, sexuality and the way we are socialized around this issue that dictates the type of choices we make as individuals, even when armed with information,” she said.
The Parliamentary Secretary issued a firm call to Antiguan and Barbudans, especially the younger residents and women “to exercise that power of choice in determining, when you have sex, who you choose to make your sexual partner, understanding that their lifestyle has consequences for you, and we ask you to exercise choice in the terms on which you negotiate sex.”
Meanwhile, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr. Rhonda Sealy Thomas examined the epidemic from the perspective of its concentrated impacts within the 15-49 year old age group since the first case of HIV was diagnosed in 1985.
She said, however, that though the most economically productive sector of our population is affected by the epidemic, the twin island state has long embraced the concept of universal access to prevention, care, treatment and support even before it was adopted by other governments in the 2006.
In Antigua & Barbuda, from 1985 to present, there were 919 persons who tested positive to HIV 487 males and 432 females. In 2011, there were 216 with advanced HIV infections. Of that amount 186 were on Anti Retro viral Treatment (ART). Two Hundred and seventeen persons have died from AIDS related illnesses and 27 persons were lost to follow up, while the age group most infected with HIV is the 20 to 49 age group.
Efforts, so far, have been made through the United Nations (UN) Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS to improve on a number of initiatives targeted to reduce the impact of the disease not only on patients but also on their families who are also indirectly affected.
These initiatives, the Chief Medical Officer said, include but are not limited to, a programme for the prevention of the mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS (PMTCT), Voluntary and Counseling (VCT) services, The Provision of standard drug kits for managing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by the Ministry of Health, Engaging the services of a Clinical Care Coordinator, the provision of anti retroviral medications (ARVs) and opportunistic infection drugs including anti tuberculosis medication at no cost to Persons Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs) and the establishment of a Human Rights Desk at the AIDS Secretariat.
The CMO acknowledged that the Ministry of Health has not been able to make these advances in HIV/AIDS care and treatment on its own, but with the support and collaboration of non governmental organisations, faith based organisations, and international donors such as the Global Fund against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the United States government through the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the corporate citizens and institutions such as Scotiabank.
Dr. Sealy Thomas disclosed that Antigua & Barbuda is well on its way to achieving universal access to prevention, care, treatment, recognising that the epidemic is evolving and expressed commitment to ensuring that national programmes also progress.
The Chief Medical Officer announced that, to this end, a National Strategic Plan has been developed for HIV/AIDS and future plans are in the pipeline “to include the re-establishment of a multi-sectoral National AIDS Committee that will have general oversight of our national HIV/AIDS response.”
Though aware that sustainable financing is critical as we move forward to ensure that the strides, she said innovative financing mechanisms are being sought to ensure a sustained response to the epidemic.
“In this regard we are currently working with USAID to determine the actual cost of HIV/AIDS care and treatment to guide our plans….as the HIV/AIDS epidemic evolves and as we seek to build on our achievements in combating the epidemic, we have a golden opportunity for the business community to match Scotiabank’s commitment and investment in our HIV response,” the Chief Medical Officer said.
She challenged other private sector organisations and institutions to be as enterprising as Scotiabank and partner with the Ministry of Health not only with HIV/AIDS, but, also in other challenging public health issues such as immunisation and chronic non communicable diseases such as diabetes and cancer.
Clinical Care Co-ordinator Dr. Amina Goodwin–Fernandez said there is “hope” for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS as in Antigua & Barbuda since HIV/AIDS is classified as a chronic illness like hypertension and diabetes and PLWHIV/AIDS when on treatment could live as normal a life as uninfected persons.
She explained further, that knowing one’s status is critical to curtail the spread of HIV infection and reduce the viral loads of the infected person and is the first step to putting those infected on the path to good health and treatment.
CBMP Representative Mitzi Allen relayed greetings on the behalf of the Executive Director Dr. Allyson Leacock.
She spoke of the continuous training for journalists to sensitise the populace on issues relating to HIV/AIDS with objectives to eliminate against stigma and discrimination, and of the emphasis placed on knowing one’s status through a region-wide campaign dubbed “LIVE UP”.
Through CBMP’s commitment, approximately 110 members have demonstrated an unswerving commitment to HIV prevention by donating the value of US $10 million of their airtime annually to HIV messaging.
Edson Joseph, Permanent Secretary Ministry of Health congratulated the partners for their continued support and challenged Scotiabank to expand its reach into the community and to collaborate with faith-based organisations in 2013 for the conduct HIV/AIDs testing.
The article was written by Onika Campbell –Publicist Ministry of Health, Social Transformation, Consumer Affairs & Local Government. Onika is a two times PAHO/WHO Award Winning Journalist for reports on issues relating to HIV/AIDS