U.S.-Caribbean in major link against HIV/AIDS
Guyana Chronicle
April 21, 2002

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`Given what we know, we cannot postpone action. We must act now' - Dr. Denzil Douglas, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis

`We're here to listen and we're here to help' - U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, Mr. Tommy Thompson

COMMON CAUSE: Mr. Tommy Thompson and St. Kitts/Nevis Prime Minister, Dr. Denzil Douglas at yesterday's conference.

THE United States yesterday formally linked with the Caribbean in a partnership to combat the spread of the dreaded HIV/AIDS disease with a top official of the Bush Administration flying here to pledge Washington's commitment to the fight in the region.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, Mr. Tommy Thompson met President Bharrat Jagdeo and four of his Cabinet members over breakfast at State House, ahead of an historic one-day meeting at Le Meridien Pegasus Hotel in Georgetown.

That meeting, convened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) with American and Caribbean officials, saw the U.S. and the Caribbean agreeing that fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic was a "common cause".

At the end of the sessions Thompson signed the Pan-Caribbean Partnership Agreement to bolster U.S.-Caribbean collaboration on the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Concerned about the situation in the Caribbean with about 420,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, organisers of the conference concluded that the region's problem with HIV/AIDS is also a U.S. problem, because many people who live in the Caribbean use a figurative `air brigade' to travel back and forth to the U.S., carrying with them the potential to fatally infect people there.

Stressing the importance of the encounter, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a special message to delegates saying Washington has given top priority to stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS at home and abroad.

In the message read by Mr. Ronald Godard, U.S. Ambassador here, Powell noted that the HIV/AIDS infection rate "is growing at an alarming rate (in the Caribbean), second only to that of sub-Saharan Africa."

The purpose of yesterday's conference was essentially to determine how the U.S. can better work with Caribbean Health Ministers on stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS in the region.

BREAKFAST MEETING: from left, Health Minister, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy, Mr. Tommy Thompson, U.S. Ambassador, Mr. Ronald Godard, Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr. Roger Luncheon, Education Minister, Dr. Henry Jeffrey and Culture, Youth and Sports Minister, Ms. Gail Teixeira before the breakfast meeting at State House.

At the opening, Thompson said the HHS will be providing US$100M and technical assistance for the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, among other forms of assistance earmarked for the Caribbean.

Noting that the U.S. representatives to the Global Fund will be meeting Wednesday, he promised to fight real hard to ensure the proposals for the Caribbean are approved.

He stressed the importance of prevention and education in the fight against the disease. He noted these are still "the best means of fighting HIV/AIDS", adding that there is increased hope through expanded access to care and treatment.

Thompson said the battle against HIV/AIDS was "a daunting task in front of all of us, and something all of us have got to support."

Following his discussions with President Jagdeo, Thompson said he also saw the need for annual U.S.-Caribbean meetings on HIV/AIDS, adding that he was willing to dedicate time to this.

"We're here to listen and we're here to help", he said.

President Jagdeo, who also attended the opening, thanked the U.S. Government for its assistance, concern and intervention and urged that all should work collectively to further the initiative.

He endorsed the dangers of the HIV scourge in the Caribbean, admitting that perhaps people in the region did not sufficiently understand the disease, and many might have been of the misguided opinion that they could insulate themselves and prevent the disease.

"But we cannot build a wall around ourselves. HIV/AIDS will have a global reach, and so we need to have a global response," he said.

Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, and Minister responsible for Health in the Quasi Cabinet of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Dr. Denzil Douglas, said the Caribbean has been making every effort to scale up the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is eroding its human resources and capability to compete in the global arena.

He called for "concrete directions for progress" from yesterday's conference, stressing that HIV/AIDS was the main cause of death among the 15-44 age group in the Caribbean.

Most Caribbean countries are unable to provide adequate access to care and treatment for many reasons, including limited public budgets and a high debt burden, he said.

"We must take drastic action now to avert what may escalate into a sub-Saharan phenomenon right here in the Caribbean", he too warned.

"Given what we know, we cannot postpone action. We must act now", Douglas reiterated.

He pointed out that Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname and the Dominican Republic are among countries in the partnership that are stymied in their responses because of high debt burdens which consume up to half or more of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

"Others like Haiti actually have GDPs too low to launch any real or meaningful attack. And yet others like the OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States) are somewhat crippled in their responses because of small population size which makes it difficult on a per capita basis to absorb the cost of care", he said.

Noting that an underlying cause of migration is access to better care, Douglas said it is essential for the Caribbean to make every effort to improve its health care services.

"This cannot be achieved if our skilled labour force is leaving and the quality and numbers required to deliver quality health care are compromised", he said.

In addition, the widening technological gap was creating inequalities in access to "quality" care and for this and other reasons, countries like those in the Caribbean "are at a serious disadvantage", he told the conference.

Douglas said a new formula was needed to address these concerns in a holistic manner "in light of the rising incidence burden of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean."

He said CARICOM was concerned at the increasing migration of nurses from the region and suggested that the conference consider proposals, including:

** providing the capacity to train more nursing professionals;

** negotiating with the receiving countries and institutions the mechanisms for managing migration, and

** seeking some compensation in the form of reimbursement of the cost of training professionals from the recipients of skilled labour.

Douglas said the Caribbean was pleased to receive a U.S. proposal for the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Initiative (CHART) - a resource centre to train professionals in the area of HIV/AIDS.

He pointed out that while this will not completely address the migration problem, "it will significantly improve the region's ability to deal with care and treatment issues."

He, however, urged that countries that require urgent attention, including Guyana, Suriname, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, be covered by the proposal which makes provision for locating the centres in The Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.

He also called for U.S. support for the Caribbean's move to get cheaper drugs for the disease and welcomed Thompson's announcement Friday that he would have signed the Pan Caribbean Partnership Agreement yesterday afternoon.

Douglas said the agreement has already received acclaim as being a model for regional cooperation in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

"Its operations are guided by a regional strategic plan which focusses on some core areas, including prevention, care and treatment, information, communications and public education, advocacy and resource mobilisation", he explained.