Spreading the word
Stabroek News
December 15, 2001

Awareness of HIV and AIDS has certainly risen in Guyana. No one who passed near the National Cultural Centre on December 1, World AIDS Day could doubt that. Desiree Edghill's Artistes In Direct Support troupe performed to a sold-out crowd. Had the group's policy not been to have a free show, thousands of dollars could have been raised for the cause that night.

Ms Edghill, though herself an actress, limited her performance to writing the script and staying behind the scenes. The majority of the people on stage that night were in their teens or early twenties. There was also a high concentration of young people among the audience, an encouraging sign since young people are among the most vulnerable to contracting HIV. Many of them still have misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted and continue to put themselves at risk. Ms Edghill, who has been in the fight since 1992 and is now Chairperson of the National AIDS Committee, is sadly conscious of this as she told the Sunday Stabroek in an interview last week: "We want to keep the public getting the word all the time. There has been some change in attitude but I don't think there has been a huge change."

She, like most other anti-AIDS advocates, recommended that in order to prevent HIV infection persons abstain, use a condom or be faithful to one partner. However, later in the same interview, she said: "Abstinence is the number one prevention. Condoms are not 100 per cent safe." So which is it?

Ideally, abstinence should be the preferred method of prevention. But for young people with raging hormones, it is not much of a choice. So rather than scare them into abstaining, mixed messages can very well propel them into risky behaviour.

The debate about the safety of condoms has been over for months now. The truth is that condoms, used 'consistently and correctly', prevent the transmission of HIV - 100 per cent.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS published the findings of an extensive review of all available studies was conducted by a panel convened by US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in June 2000 in the United States, with the participation of WHO. The review concluded that condoms, when used 'correctly and consistently', are effective for preventing HIV infection in women and men and gonorrhoea in men.

An information note on the WHO website said that it had been noticed that there appeared to have been misunderstandings about the difference between "lack of evidence of effectiveness" and a "lack of effectiveness."

The WHO and UNAIDS information note also said that the NIH/CDC report "underscores the effectiveness of condoms against HIV and nothing in it challenges WHO and UNAIDS Secretariat's conviction about the importance of condoms in HIV prevention programmes. "On the contrary, unclear presentation of the report's conclusions by some commentators may distract from the vital effort to reduce risk of HIV infection through the use of condoms. It is imperative to continue promoting condoms for HIV prevention while undertaking further studies on their effectiveness for prevention of other STIs."

No doubt, some churches and other religious organisations will continue to oppose the use of condoms. If the church's message is that pre-marital/out-of-marriage sex is sinful and it gets that message across, then the church is playing its role in preventing the spread of HIV.

But persons and organisations that have taken on the responsibility of spreading the word to curb the epidemic must do so 'correctly and consistently', like the use of the condom, in order to be effective.