Nevis Marks World Aids Day

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By John Denny Observer Reporter
(Charlestown, Nevis) ” World AIDS Day was the finale for a week of tireless work by members of the Nevis HIV Unit. The official World AIDS Day, Monday, Dec. 1, saw a march of 200 students and volunteers through the uncooperatively rainy weather through the streets of downtown Charlestown. The 200 marchers represented the number of people who have tested positive for HIV in the Federation through 2007. Fortunately, most who attended received a red umbrella to ward off the rain. They additionally received T-shirts and knapsacks. The march ended at Grove Park with speeches and a brief address from Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Hon. Hensley Daniel. Later Monday, a red electric ribbon was lighted at the Pump Road and Island Main Road intersection. The ribbon will be up through the month of January to remind all who drive by to be ever vigilant in the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Permanent Secretary of Health Nicole Slack-Liburd spearheaded the week-long effort to raise HIV/AIDS awareness, with the close assistance of HIV Surveillance Officer Shana Howell, HIV Education and Prevention Officer Nadine Carty-Caines and Peace Corps volunteer Adam Waller, just to name a few. Another event the week before, saw the Nevis Sixth Form Literary and Debating Society battled over the topic “Combating the spread of HIV/AIDS through decriminalizing homosexuality and commercial sex trade.” Debaters Sashia Godet and Michelle Slack Debated in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality and prostitution came out on top against the opposition Kris Liburd and Michelle McGrath 558 to 488. Voted best speaker, Ms. Godet stated prostitution in Haiti is legal and the sex workers are taxed and the money is used to distribute condoms and other forms of prevention. Both homosexuality and commercial sex trade are widely practiced throughout the Caribbean. By decriminalizing them, the affected would be more empowered to protect themselves and their partners against the spread of HIV and AIDS, Ms. Godet said. The solution may be outside societal norms and Christian beliefs, but due to the region’s extremely high incidence of infection, thinking outside the norm is necessary in controlling the disease, she said. “Decriminalization of these two activities would allow them to be openly practiced. This will enable health officials to periodically monitor these persons as compulsory checkups will be instituted,” Ms. Godet said.” “By doing this, individuals can be aware of their status and be guided to act accordingly in the interest of all other parties they come into contact with. Which is better, engaging in homosexuality and prostitution undercover and knowing you are spreading the disease to hundreds, or practicing these two activities openly while knowing your status and protecting yourself and others?” At Grove Park on Dec. 1, Minister Daniel spoke on the vigilant support the Department of Health has given to combating HIV transmission and the ongoing monetary support of providing anti-retrovirals to those infected on Nevis, free of charge. Prevention is a much more cost effective method of dealing with HIV/AIDS than treating with expensive drugs, said the Minister. “We have been meeting the cost of those people and just to give you an idea, to treat 12 people with anti retroviral drugs in Nevis is about $4,000-5,000 a month, So if you multiply that by a year you get $60,000,” he said. “If we double the number of people we have to treat you get $120,000. So if the number of cases requiring treatment moves from 12 to 24 just the treatment alone costs $120,000 a year. That is money that could be spent on a lot of other things.” Minister Daniel made a point that no one should assume they are not infected. “Just as in our legal system, people are innocent until proven guilty, everyone should say in Nevis that they are positive until proven negative,” he said. Permanent Secretary Mrs. Slack-Liburd addressed the crowd, thanking all those who had worked tirelessly throughout the community and at the Unit, and although much progress had been made combating the virus, the war was far from over. “Let us accelerate our response to the disease by searching for the leader within each and every one of us. It is our civic duty to empower ourselves so we can be delivered from the scourge of the disease,” she said. Fourteen people are currently receiving anti-retroviral treatment for AIDS on Nevis and since 1987, 59 cases of HIV/AIDS have been recorded on the island, According to Mrs. Liburd. “”A newly introduced workplace HIV/AIDS education program at several major business houses has been embraced by the private sector in particular, who recognize the link between the health of their workers, productivity and a thriving economy,” she said. Voluntary testing and counseling have been ongoing programs in the Unit with an estimated 900 people getting to “know their status” annually. “With plans to scale up rapid testing services, it is our hope that clients can access testing services at two community health centers within the next year, thereby increasing that number by at least 10 percent,” she said. “Issues of male dominance in relationships encouraged by cultural norms are challenged by empowerment programs which educate women and young girls on self-esteem and provide decision making skills. This target group has surpassed men, with a greater proportion of (women) now infected,” she said Peace Corps volunteer Adam Lawler delivered some startling statistics about the prevalence of the virus in the region. At the end of 2007, an estimated 230,000 people were living with HIV and AIDS in the Caribbean. Some 20,000 people were newly infected during 2007, and there were 14,000 deaths due to AIDS, he said. In two countries in this region – the Bahamas and Haiti – more than 2 percent of the adult population is living with HIV. Higher prevalence rates are found only in sub-Saharan Africa, making the Caribbean the second-most affected region in the world. Half of adults living with the virus are women. AIDS is now one of the leading causes of death in some of these countries, with Haiti being the worst affected. An estimated 7,500 lives are lost each year to AIDS in Haiti, and thousands of children have been orphaned by the epidemic. Overall, the main route of HIV transmission in the Caribbean is heterosexual sex. Much of this transmission is associated with commercial sex, but the virus is also spreading in the general population, especially in Haiti. Sex between men is also a major factor in some countries’ epidemics. Cultural and behavioral patterns, such as early initiation of sexual acts, and taboos related to sex and sexuality, gender inequalities, lack of confidentiality, stigmatization and economic need are some of the factors influencing vulnerability to HIV and AIDS in the Caribbean. Haiti’s HIV prevalence levels have been very high since the late 1980s. Although the rate among pregnant women fell between 1996 and 2004, it has since remained stable. With very low condom use among young people, and about 60% of the population under 24, much scope exists for renewed growth in Haiti’s mainly heterosexually-transmitted epidemic. On the other side of Hispaniola Island, in the Dominican Republic, HIV prevalence declined slightly between 2002 and 2007, possibly because of prevention efforts that encouraged people to have fewer sexual partners and increase condom use. This weeks activities also saw a special church service at St Paul’s Anglican Church and an HIV/AIDS display throughout the week at the Library. Another voluntary testing and counseling day has bee scheduled for Wednesday Dec. 17 at the Department of Health. For more information about getting to know your status, call Nevis HIV/AIDS Unit @ 469-8010 or 469-5521ext. 2064

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