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Nov 28, 2002

AIDS: Situation bad and getting worse

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After more than a decade and a half as the world’s most high profile health concern, the reality of the AIDS epidemic still seems to have escaped the consciousness of most Belizeans. This must be the case because despite years of public education, private counselling and increased surveillance, the numbers tell an increasingly frightening tale. Since the first AIDS case was diagnosed here in 1986, a total of two thousand, two hundred and twenty Belizean residents have been confirmed as carrying the HIV virus. Through the end of September, four hundred and one of those people have died. In the first nine months of this year alone, three hundred and nine new HIV infections have been reported and the projection is for at least four hundred cases for the year. This compares to three hundred and thirty new cases in 2001 and two hundred and twenty-eight in the year 2000. It is against this depressing background that local and foreign experts met to take stock of where the nation stands in its efforts to confront this most elusive enemy. News 5′s Marion Ali reports.

Marion Ali, Reporting

They may be fewer in number than those whose disease they are trying to defeat, but the varied group of people who gathered today in Belize City for the first National AIDS Conference are determined that the epidemic will be beaten.

With a rate of infection among the highest in the region, Prime Minister Said Musa says Belize’s situation seems daunting.

Prime Minister Said Musa

“We’ve attempted all that we can at this stage from our limited resources, but there is still much more to be done. To this end, our Government is committed to combat this disease and has applied to the Global Fund for assistance to the tune of six point nine million U.S. dollars over a five-year period to carry on our programme of action.”

“As the shadow of AIDS looms over us as a country and the world, we must realize that we are still only at the beginning of the HIV epidemic. As the High Commissioner said, we are far from being out of the woods; indeed we can’t even tell the woods from the trees. This is a depressing message, given the destruction that AIDS has already caused. But at the same time it gives us hope because we can still act to change the epidemic’s future course.”

And changing that course is just what the Ministry of Health will try to do. According to C.E.O. Henry Anderson, a recent allocation of one point three million dollars will be invested primarily to expand the mother-to-child prevention and anti-retroviral treatment.

Henry Anderson, C.E.O., Ministry of Health

“What we do there is we give the Nevoraprine to a mother before she delivers the baby and to the baby. What we want to do is offer the anti-retrovirals firstly, starting with the mothers we find positive. In the past we weren’t doing anything. The Prime Minister also indicated that we’ll be setting up two sites and running pilot projects in the country and we expect those to come on stream by the end of January. Basically what we’ll do then is to work with those mothers who are infected then provide the anti-retroviral treatment to them. To give anti-retroviral treatment is just not giving the medication; it’s far more complicated than that. You have to have a lab capability to do the lab testing you need, you have to have the protocols, you have to train the doctors and the health care providers.”

Anderson says everyone living with HIV/AIDS should have access to the treatment within the next few years at a cost of about one hundred and fifty dollars a month. Richard Stern of the Agua Buena Vista Human Rights Association in Costa Rica believes that treatment of all HIV and AIDS victims in Central American is not an unrealistic goal.

Richard Stern, Dir., Agua Buena Human Rights Assn

“Everybody living with AIDS on a worldwide level deserves anti-retroviral medication. We think it’s cost-effective, we think it saves money for the government because they don’t have hospital costs, orphans in the streets; you have people who can return to the labour force. The medications are not a cure, but they do return most people to a quality of life to be considered normal.”

But while treatment is important for those already infected, Chairperson of the Commission, Minister of Human Development, Dolores Balderamos Garcia, says the dialogue needs to continue.

Dolores Balderamos-Garcia, Chair, Nat’l AIDS Commission

“What we are seeing is that there is a major gap between awareness and education and behaviour change, so young people have all the information. I mean they are exposed to so much sex on television, there is information you can get on the internet, encyclopaedias, in class et cetera, but is it making a difference in that person’s behaviour. Because we know the epidemic is attacking persons between the ages of fifteen right up to forty-nine. And that’s our productive sector, our sexually active population, and that is why it is so important to prevent further infection.”

But care is also very important in reducing the frightening numbers.

Dolores Balderamos Garcia

“If you take the attitude, leave those people alone who are HIV positive, we can’t do anything about them, let them die, that is the wrong approach. If we don’t care for people who are HIV positive, we will be seeing more cases, because somebody with risky behaviour will go out there and spread it more than if the community comes together, the religious community, our community based responses in the districts for example, if you come together and care for each and every person, then there will be less likelihood of spreading.”

Marion Ali for News 5.

The conference, which ends tomorrow, is working under the theme, “Let and let live”. Funding assistance for the gathering was provided by the British High Commission.

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