August 31, 1999
At the launching of the 1999 national AIDS campaign last week, National AIDS Programme Manager, Dr Maxine Swain, described the situation in Guyana as "slowly spinning out of control."
Guyana's first known case of AIDS was diagnosed in 1987 and according to statistics from the public health sector, there have been 1,233 cases from then to last year. There have been 99 for the first three months of this year. It bears repeating that these figures are only from the public health sector. Private physicians are not forthcoming with figures, so the true picture in Guyana is not known. It also bears repeating that for every AIDS case diagnosed, there could be three or four HIV positive links; persons who would have had sexual contact with the person diagnosed with AIDS. The bitter truth is that many Guyanese just do not believe in monogamy.
Recently there have been calls (some in SN's letter columns) for mandatory testing and isolation of HIV positive persons, when elsewhere in the world, voluntary HIV counselling and testing is being advocated. Mandatory testing or disclosure of a person's serological status is a violation of their right not to have their medical condition known and could lead to dire consequences such as suicide. Confidentiality must be rigorously maintained, especially by counsellors and health care providers.
According to statistics published by the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 33.4 million adults and children the world over were estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS as at the end of 1998. Of this amount 330,000 were attributed to the Caribbean. Australia and New Zealand had the lowest figure--12,000. Africa had the highest--22.5 million.
In many countries in Africa, coffin building has become a lucrative trade. Botswana has lost so many of its qualified human resources to the disease that it is now recruiting on a large scale overseas. Guyana is steadily losing teachers, lecturers, engineers, nurses and other professionals to Botswana. This is considered a crisis here especially in the teaching profession. A similar loss to AIDS could prove disastrous.
Successive governments since 1987 have ignored the threat AIDS poses. A national programme was set up but there was no strategic plan nor was there any consultation in devising the plan. The programme changed some four managers over the years, with gaps of months between managers; and each had his/her own idea of what ought to be done. For many years, the National AIDS Programme, with a staff of under ten, was the implementing body of anti-HIV/AIDS projects. The obvious fall-out was that projects were limited to a few regions and there was wholesale duplication of foreign-produced material. The AIDS Programme's response became reactive.
However, in recent years some progress has been made. The National AIDS Programme manager has forged alliances with non governmental organisations through which education and awareness initiatives are being pursued on a national scale. The National AIDS Programme now has a strategic plan, which it says was drawn up after wide consultation with government and non governmental organisations. This plan must work.
Health Minister, Dr Henry Jeffrey, said earlier this year that government had allocated $500 million to the battle against the disease. The Ministry of Health must ensure that skilled, committed persons are hired. In every sector of this country money has been wasted through the placing of square pegs in round holes. Human resources are extremely important.
In many countries in the world, HIV/AIDS is now being treated as just another disease and beyond taking the necessary precautions, persons have moved beyond stigmatisation.
Miss Universe 1998 Trinidadian Wendy Fitzwilliam made AIDS her platform during her reign, raising awareness on her travels throughout the world. Personalities the world over have lent their voices, resources and talents to the AIDS fight, raising funds for vaccine research and the development of anti-retroviral drugs which suppress the virus.
In Guyana, people who can make a difference mostly refuse to be associated with HIV prevention. For some, the mere mention of the word AIDS still causes irritation.
In spite of the risk of ostracisation in what is still a very narrow-minded society, a lone voice has been heard. A local HIV positive man made his status public at the campaign launching in order to promote awareness, education and hopefully a change in attitude to HIV/AIDS in Guyana.
The media, business community and civil society must lend support now. Denial and complacency have brought us from where we were in 1987 to where we are today. The time for procrastination is over. The time to act is now.
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples