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Aug 15, 2018

Introducing PrEP to the Fight against HIV/AIDS in Belize

In an effort to strengthen its fight against HIV/AIDS in Belize, the National AIDS Commission in collaboration with the Office of the Special Envoy for Women and Children held a sensitization session at the Biltmore Plaza in Belize City. Key speakers from Gilead Sciences made presentations to stakeholders about the implementation of Pre-exposure Prophylaxis, better known as PrEP, into the local health system. PrEP is used as a preventative tool in contracting HIV/AIDS. News Five’s Duane Moody reports.

 

Duane Moody, Reporting

The fight against HIV/AIDS in Belize has been continuous so much so that there is an average of just over two hundred new cases recorded every year. The Ministry of Health’s most recent statistics show that there are about three thousand, six hundred and sixty-five persons living with HIV; with over a hundred having lost the battle against the virus.

Several agencies have been working in Belize to reduce the number of infected persons with the aim to have zero new infections by the year 2030. The National AIDS Commission is one of them; and year round, there have been awareness campaigns on improved lifestyles and best sex practices among vulnerable populations, primarily those between the ages of twenty and forty-four, in which the prevalence of contracting the disease is greater.

 

Laura Tucker-Longsworth

Laura Tucker-Longsworth, Chairperson, National AIDS Commission

“We know that prevention has a lot to do with lifestyle changes. We also understand that Belize is one of those countries who are heading towards this strategy where we want ninety-ninety-ninety. We want people to get tested, we want them to know their status and we want them to get treated.”

 

It’s been almost four decades since HIV was first discovered. Over thirty-five million persons worldwide have died from the virus and it affects the quality of life of as many others, including family and friends. But even with the campaigns, there is need for other forms of intervention, including oral medication, outside of what is already available to the Belizean populace.

 

Laura Tucker-Longsworth

“We are charged, the commission, and you know the commission is comprised of many agencies: Ministry of Health, key population—LGBT, young people, old people. And so we all need to understand what is the role of PrEP in terms of the prevention aspect of HIV. But you have those vulnerable groups and if you have science that can support the preventative aspect of HIV, then why not use it. Why not use it? And so that is what it is this morning. We want to start the sensitization and that is our role at the National AIDS Commission. We can’t say that that’s what it is going to do for the country, we have to start the conversation and we also have to make sure that the government understand the value of putting this within the structure.”

 

In the region, most CARICOM states have adopted the use of Pre-exposure Prophylaxis as part of its healthcare strategy in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Known for short as PrEP; it is a way to prevent HIV infection for people who do not have HIV, but are at substantial risk of getting it.  If a person is exposed to the virus, the medicine can work to keep the virus from establishing a permanent infection. So as a first step to the introduction of PrEP in the Belize health system, a sensitization session between stakeholders and Gilead Sciences was held.

 

Elizabeth Cerqueira-Murray

Elizabeth Cerqueira-Murray, Senior Director for Central America & the Caribbean, Gilead Sciences

“Our goal and responsibility as a corporation is to make sure that education and awareness are related to the advances in HIV treatment and Hepatitis C and B treatment and other diseases are understood across the countries. And typically like my responsibility in Central America and the Caribbean is to make sure that countries that aren’t usually on the radar for making these kind of education reaches by global organization, Gilead wants to make sure that we are there to fill that gap.”

 

When taken consistently, PrEP has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection in people who are at high risk by up to ninety-two percent. But while it is used as a preventative tool, for greater protection it should be combined with using condoms and other standard prevention methods. People who use PrEP must commit to taking the drug every day and seeing their health care provider for follow-up every three months.

 

Elizabeth Cerqueira-Murray

“PrEP is a component of a comprehensive HIV prevention programme; it is endorsed by the W.H.O. and other organization. We can have all the great ideas, we can have all the great medicines, we can have all the great intentions for response, but if we don’t implement properly that’s where we see opportunities for lack of achieving the ultimate goal. The reaction that I usually receive when I am speaking with Ministers of Health and other key health decision-makers around PrEP is, oh no. PrEP seems like it could promote promiscuity, etc. And once ministries of health and other decision-makers in health understand that it is a component of prevention and the programme is quite comprehensive and specific. It is not an intervention of HIV that is stand alone; it is a component of a larger prevention programme.”

 

But even at the discussion stage, there are psychosocial concerns which continue to plague the Belizean society and hinder the progress in the struggle against HIV/AIDS in Belize and the region.

 

Kim Simplis Barrow

Kim Simplis Barrow, Special Envoy for Women and Children

“It is important because the Caribbean is facing a serious threat with our HIV prevalence and we are the second highest, next to Sub-Saharan Africa. And through our population might be small compare to theirs, it still hurts and it will hurt us in the immediate future.  For us to really address the HIV situation, we must address the discrimination that occurs on a daily basis on people from the LGBTI community. If we don’t address that we cannot move on to the next level. People are discriminated upon once they are diagnosed with HIV; that is a fact, so people are afraid to go and get tested. We have to stop being afraid of getting tested.”

 

Duane Moody for News Five.

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