Making AIDS a national issue

Stabroek News
September 23, 2000

Following a recent HIV/AIDS summit held in Barbados, that country's Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, who is also finance minister announced a massive increase in the allocation of funds to fight the disease on that island, from Bds$1.2 million to Bds$25 million. Barbados proposes to provide some amount of anti-retroviral therapy for people living with HIV on the island, hence the drastic increase.

But what was more significant than the increase in the allocation of funds, was Prime Minister Arthur's announcement that the Barbados Ministry of Finance would take over the Ministry of Health's responsibilities for coordinating the fight against HIV/AIDS, since it could no longer be looked at as just a health issue. It was reported that Barbados, with its population of some 300,000, had seen 1,200 AIDS deaths since the first case in 1984.

Around that same year, 1984, journalists and other individuals and groups in California, USA had begun to realise the seriousness of the disease and the extent to which it could spread. They lobbied the then Reagan administration to allocate funds for research and treatment, to no avail. And the Band Played On written by Randy Shilts, a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, chronicles the struggles of these groups to get their government to respond to the devastation that was being wrought by AIDS. By the time they did in 1987, AIDS had become an epidemic.

Figures released in the Biannual Report of PAHO/ WHO/UNAIDS Working Group on HIV/AIDS/STIs Surveillance in the Americas published in May this year reveal that Guyana had reported 377 AIDS deaths since the disease was first detected here in 1987. At the end of 1999, Guyana had 1,602 reported cases of AIDS. Guyana's population is around 800,000.

There is a danger that the band will play on here too. The evergreen Dave Martins and the Tradewinds sang years ago about West Indians' penchant for copying. Their tune "Copycat" tells of how we would shamelessly copy customs, accents even cultures. We are demonstrating the same lack of political will that led to the burgeoning of the virus that causes AIDS in the US and the consequent domino effect in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

More than a year ago Minister of Health, Dr Henry Jeffrey, had announced that $500 million had been allocated to the fight against AIDS. There is no evidence that even half that sum has been spent since then. However, after much vacillation, a concerted lobby by the National AIDS Committee saw Parliament assenting to the National AIDS Policy last year. Since then, some 3,000 copies of the document have been printed and disseminated, but much more still needs to be done.

Prime Minister Arthur said boldly last week that since HIV/AIDS affected so many spheres of social and economic activity, the health ministry could no longer be the entity to give a coordinated direction. The same is true in Guyana and the government needs to move to involve more non-health personnel and entities in the fight. The theme for the 2000/2001 Expanded World AIDS Campaign is 'AIDS - Men make a difference'. Are any of the men who are determined to govern this country ready to make a difference?

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