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Sep 28, 2006

So you test HIV positive … what?s next?

Story PictureO.K., so you’ve been convinced that knowing your HIV status is a good thing. You took the test. The result is positive. News Five’s Kendra Griffith, in the last of a three part report, tells us what happens next.

Dr. Paul Edwards, Deputy Dir., Health Services
?Before, we had always encouraged individuals to go get tested and many times their response was, if I tested positive what would be there for them??

Kendra Griffith, Reporting
With no end in sight to the AIDS pandemic ?what is there for me?? is a question that a lot of Belizeans have on their minds. Fortunately, there are programmes in place to help … beginning immediately after you get your results.

Dr. Paul Edwards
?When the result is positive, one of the first things we would do is to get an appointment with the physician for a complete physical examination to be done–an assessment to determine the staging of that person in relation to the disease.?

Nurse Lorna Perez, Nurse, VCT Clinic
?The other part that we have to look at is the part of the person?s understanding of what the disease means, how to prevent the continuous transmission of this infection, how to relate this information to their partner or partners, how to change whatever lifestyle that is not conducive to good health, if they are drug users, if they are alcoholics, if they are having multiple sex partners, if they having unprotected sex, all these areas we have to deal with.?

Those topics are covered in the post-counselling aspect of testing, something that did not exist when HIV activist Allen Garbutt found out his status almost a decade ago.

Allen Garbutt, AIDS Activist
?First of all, let me say there was no paper, they just say, ?Hey you are positive.? And it really shook me up, I tried taking my life. As a matter of fact, if you could look up my files you will find where I do have scars from trying to slit my wrist. I tried drinking poison, I tried everything.?

Lorna Perez
?The fact that they come out positive does not mean that they were ready for the positive result, so the counselling actually is to prepare them for yes, I am at risk and what does it mean for me to be HIV positive and that?s why you try to emphasise from the very beginning that being HIV positive doesn?t mean you have AIDS. You can be positive and not have AIDS, so once they understand that then they know they have come control on how their life will progress from now being positive to the time if they will develop AIDS.?

Kendra Griffith
?Do you know that there is medication available free of charge for people who test positive for HIV??

Citizen
?No, I don?t know that. I don?t think so neither. There is? Well then they should put it on the TV and tell the AIDS victim it?s free, no cost right.?

In 2004 then Minister of Health Vildo Marin vowed that government would provide free HIV medication to all Belizeans … and they have been doing just that. According to Deputy Director of Health Services, Dr. Paul Edwards, there are just under four hundred persons currently on anti-retroviral therapy.

Dr. Paul Edwards
?When that person is found to be HIV positive, they come in every three months to do an assessment, a complete physical examination and also the laboratory aspect of it to monitor where they are at. We talk about normal levels between eight hundred and one thousand two hundred, so when somebody is HIV positive, that CD4 cells would go down progressively over the years as the amount of virus increases within that person?s body. When it reaches three and hundred fifty, that would be the criteria we utilise, along with clinical signs and symptoms of full-blown AIDS as we would call it, and that person then would be eligible for the medications, what we call anti-retroviral, which basically are three medications.?

Those medications, in varying dosages and combinations, should be taken on a permanent basis.

Another government-led project is the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission programme which has been in existence since 2001. Through this initiative, pregnant mothers are encouraged to get tested and if found to be HIV positive, the women are given the drug Nevirapine before delivery and are provided with artificial milk for nine months. Newborns must also receive the drug after birth. The project has been very successful and the numbers show that since its inception the HIV transmission rate from mother to child has been reduced from approximately fifty percent to eleven point five.

N.G.O.s have also joined government in providing services to HIV positive persons. One such organisation is Hand in Hand Ministries, a faith-based international agency operating in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Hand in Hand opened its offices in Belize in 2002 and has kept a low profile, getting customers by referrals and word of mouth … but that hasn?t stopped them from having a major impact in the community.

Mark Thessing, Hand in Hand Ministries
?Hand in Hand felt that housing was a serious concern for Belize, especially Belize City. The government of Belize has different initiatives they?ve started, but we felt a serious need for basic homes for people in need and our criteria, Kendra, is basically the family has to own their own land, for one. We try to work with government to provide land if it?s needed. Another criteria is that the family actually has to work and volunteer when the home is actually constructed.?

?Our second biggest initiative is the Hand in Hand Outreach Centre and that?s located on the southside of Belize City and that is a centre for children infected with HIV and their families. It?s a holistic centre in the sense that medication is provided by the Ministry of Health, the opportunistic infections medication is also provided through us. We also have a nutrition programme that we run through the centre as well and we provide counselling services as they are needed.?

Through its Building for Change project, Hand in Hand has constructed fifty-six modest homes across the country, while its Outreach Centre is treating some thirty-five HIV positive children.

Although not exclusively for HIV-related activities, the Cornerstone Foundation based in San Ignacio conducts HIV/AIDS home care training workshops. The course equips persons with the necessary skills and information on how to care for someone with the virus, including bathing, feeding, and protective measures for caregivers.

In the field for almost a decade, the Alliance Against AIDS in Belize City provides counselling for persons infected with HIV and has a support group that meets regularly. AAA also has a hotline where anyone can find information about the virus or for referrals.

While agencies try to meet the demands of people living with the virus, Garbutt says nothing compares to the care and support of family members.

Allen Garbutt
?One of the most common thing that is still lacking in our society is our basic, basic family support. That is still?that is an issue that still needs to be addressed. There?s so many persons out there who are infected and affected by it and the families are just like turning their backs and that is sad.?

Dr. Paul Edwards
?Many people still think about HIV/AIDS as a death sentence. Many people are not aware that there are services available, that there are medications available and that it is a chronic disease whereby the medication will not cure you. But just like diabetes, just like hypertension?there?s not a cure for those diseases, but accessing the services, knowing early, getting the medications, taking the medications as indicated by your doctor, sleeping well, eating well, so that medication works in synergy with that nutrition for maximum benefit.?

Being HIV positive is not a walk in the park … but for Garbutt, he has no regrets about finding out his status.

Kendra Griffith
?Do you regret knowing??

Allen Garbutt
?Ah, no definitely not. As a matter of fact I can look at them and I can laugh now because I?m at peace with myself, I?m at peace with myself. I used to hold on to HIV and say, ?I di dead, I di dead, but I?ve learnt to let it go.?

Kendra Griffith reporting for News 5.

For more information on Hand in Hand Ministries call them at 227-6273. Alliance Against AIDS’s hotline number is 223-6911, while the Cornerstone Foundation can be contacted at 824-2373 or online at www.peacecorner.org.

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