UNICEF urges ‘scale up’ of response to HIV/AIDS in Guyana

Guyana Chronicle
August 3, 2003

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“There should be a great alliance in which you all must be advocates, activists and supporters” - Fritz Lherisson, UNICEF Special Representative in Guyana
By Shirley Thomas
IN GUYANA today, the 15-24 age group accounts for more than 50 per cent of the total known cases of HIV infection. And recent studies indicate that one in every 20 sexually active persons in Guyana is likely to be HIV infected.

But while this is so, it is to be noted that there is a high rate of under-reporting on HIV/AIDS in Guyana.

This is according to the UNICEF Special Representative in Guyana, Mr. Fritz Lherisson, who last week addressed a Workshop for Journalists on HIV/AIDS among children and youths at Le Meridien Pegasus in Georgetown.

The facts stated have led Lherisson to concede that: “Given the magnitude of the threat of HIV/AIDS in Guyana, our greatest challenge now is to immediately scale up and sustain the response to the epidemic and its prevention.”

And how could this be accomplished given our present circumstances?

Said Lherisson: “In order to win the fight against HIV/AIDS in Guyana, all sectors of society need to become involved…partnership at all levels, with a wide range of collaborators and strong leadership at all levels of society is the key to this expanded and effective response to the epidemic”

“There should be a great alliance in which you all must be advocates, activists and supporters,” he admonished the participants.

Meanwhile, on a note of caution, the UNICEF Special Representative advised that it is important to consider that in forging alliances there should be two forces in society: One which has the power to help, and one which has the power to hinder progress. Therefore, it is essential to try to clarify misunderstanding and misconception of groups which may attempt to oppose efforts to an active HIV/AIDS response.

He said too, that there is an urgent need to remove stigma and discrimination attached to HIV/AIDS by influencing behavioural and social change.

But key to this response, the official noted, is increasing young people’s knowledge, and the information available to them about HIV/AIDS.

Said Lherisson: “Indeed HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects the young people. More children and young people are attracting HIV than ever before.” He pointed to the alarming percentage of cases in the 14-24-year age group.

And examining the root causes of the significant increase in the number of young persons affected by the virus, Lherisson reasoned: “The high prevalence rate of HIV among young people could be attributed to early sexual activity, peer pressure, lack of information and misconception. As we can appreciate, young people who are first entering their sexual life, are especially vulnerable, and at great risk of being infected by HIV.”

Noting that Guyana is seriously affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, he reminded that this country is recorded as having the one of the highest infection rates after Haiti in the region, noting that the incidence is generalised throughout the country.

Recent figures show that Guyana has some 18,000 persons currently living with the virus and 4,200 children orphaned by the disease. And in Haiti, some 250,000 people are living with the virus and 200,000 children orphaned by the disease.

Lherisson examined the impact of the epidemic on children and young people, and stated objectively that:

** Children born with HIV, infected by their mothers in the womb, and during childbirth are inheriting a misfortune

** HIV/AIDS kills parents, destroys families, and as a result, creates orphans

** HIV/AIDS robs children of an education and a future.

But while recognising that children and young people are hardest hit by the pandemic, he also expressed the view that they are the future of the epidemic, and the key to beating it.

He reasoned that the behaviour and skills they learn now will help shape the future course of HIV/AIDS, and that they will also determine the impact the epidemic will have on the next generation.

Stressing that young people need increased knowledge and information about HIV/AIDS, the UNICEF Representative was convinced that youths can help break the mould if:

** they are provided with the right information and knowledge on safe behaviour

** the services they need to protect themselves from HIV are offered them

** the social and cultural taboos that tend to perpetuate ignorance are removed.

He gave a firm commitment that UNICEF is solidly in support of initiatives to stem the tide of the HIV/AIDS epidemic now seriously threatening Guyana’s youth population, affirming that HIV/AIDS is a core priority for UNICEF.

UNICEF has also cooperated in the development of programmes that aim to prevent infections among young people, particularly preventing mother-to-child transmission. It provides support to children orphaned by AIDS, and those living with HIV/AIDS, as well as supports interventions to remove stigma and discrimination, he assured.

Presenting the grim reality of the devastation caused by the epidemic, Lherisson affirmed: “We at UNICEF recognise that HIV/AIDS is undermining all gains achieved in the past decade in child survival, and development of children.

The disease is hampering the fulfilment of children’s human rights. Likewise, the population of orphans by HIV/AIDS and vulnerable/infected children is growing rapidly. The potential of people to develop, participate and contribute to society is being threatened by the impact of HIV/AIDS on their lives, their families’ lives, and the society’s development. Consequently, HIV/AIDS is a core priority for UNICEF.”

The UNICEF official also acknowledged the part being played by Government in this regard, adding: “Let me underline that the Government of Guyana is firmly committed to the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

He alluded to the National Strategic Plan 2002-2006 now being implemented with the support of multilateral and bilateral agencies.

Lherisson said that within the framework of the National Strategic Plan, UNICEF has been cooperating with the Government of Guyana and other stakeholder agencies to provide an effective response and halt the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“Leadership in this context involves commitment and concrete actions, and this is very evident in Guyana’s efforts, through the Ministry of Health and National AIDS Programme Secretariat,” Lherisson stated.

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