Spreading the word, containing the virus Editorial
Guyana Chronicle
December 1, 2003

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AT 24, Fancy was the belle of the neighbourhood. With her smooth brown skin and swathes of wavy, 'Dougla' hair brushing her shoulders, she was by far the most attractive young woman of the community. The women did not care much for her, but that did not bother her for she had more than her fair share of attention from the men. Like bees to flowers, young lads, mature men and even aging retirees constantly sought her favours, and because she looked so vibrantly healthy, they never wondered if she could be infected with any sexually transmitted disease. Three years ago Fancy became ill, and after a few months, she succumbed to an infection brought on by HIV/AIDS. Since then, three of her lovers have also sickened and died. Two are undergoing treatment and counselling. Another man is bravely trying to cope without medical treatment. He remains in denial.

'FANCY' is not the name of any real person and the scenario outlined above is a composite of various true stories of the transmission of HIV/AIDS in Guyana over the past ten years. Despite the welter of public service notices produced by the Health Ministry as well as various agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Guyana has emerged as a country with one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection in this part of the world. With a population of less than one million, Guyana as a nation state could be reduced to a populace of mere thousands, if the many efforts to arrest the spread of HIV/AIDS do not gain significant traction among the most vulnerable groups of the society. Empirical evidence reveals that the more poverty-stricken or marginalised the groups are, the less worried members seem about the risks of contracting the disease. In the thinking of persons, whose daily pre-occupation is finding enough food for the hungry mouths of their children, the prospect of dying from AIDS ten years into the future presents no spectre of doom and destruction. For some poor female heads of household, the entire effort of keeping "body and soul together" in the families takes precedence over caution Another thing, workers in the local sex industry are easily induced to accept higher fees for unprotected sexual intercourse.

During Saturday's glittering concert initiated by Mr. Nelson Mandela, the revered Former President of South Africa, the broadcaster of an international television network asked an official of the event whether the emphasis was to raise funds for helping the victims of HIV/AIDS or to make persons more aware in their behaviours. The official indicated that both of these objectives were valid. While decrying the fact that the anti-retrovirals, which have been proved to halt the deadly march of the disease, have not yet been made available to millions of HIV/AIDS victims in Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world, ignorance, social stigma, poverty and other factors still inhibit those infected from enjoying a better quality of life.

And what a concert it was! The delectable Beyonce Knowles, Bono and Irish singer Bob Geldorf were among the dazzling pantheon of stars to give of their time, talent and energy to this wonderful presentation, which had as its moniker and metaphor - 4666-4 - Nelson Mandela's number for the 27 years he spent in South Africa's jails. At the event, which is part of the great man's campaign in the struggle against the dreaded HIV/AIDS, Mandela carried the metaphor further. He said that millions of persons infected with the AIDS virus were in danger of being reduced to a number unless the world acts now. Describing AIDS as a greater enemy than apartheid, he called on all governments to declare a global emergency against the disease.

Should anyone wonder whether Mr. Mandela's call is slightly extreme, a quick look at the BBC website would lend credence to his urgent plea. According to the BBC, which has been running a comprehensive AIDS Season over the last few weeks, "A total of 40 million people around the world are living with HIV - more than the population of Poland. Nearly two-thirds of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where in the hardest hit two countries HIV prevalence is almost 40 per cent. The global HIV/AIDS epidemic has killed more that three million people in 2003 and there are emerging and growing epidemics in China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea,

Vietnam, several Central Asian Republics, the Baltic states and North Africa."

Hopefully, when HIV/AIDS public service messages are broadcast in Guyana's various media, citizens will pay heed thereby discouraging other beauties like 'Fancy', and her many lovers from practising irresponsible sexual behaviour.