U.S.-funded AIDS survey starts today
* Demerara, Berbice top infection rates By Nivedta Kowlessar
Guyana Chronicle
December 5, 2003

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THE Health Ministry will today start a United States-funded US$200,000 survey to track behaviours driving the HIV/AIDS epidemic among high risk and vulnerable target groups.

Health Minister, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, said the Behavioural Surveillance Survey (BSS) being conducted in collaboration with local and international agencies, will begin in Georgetown among 1700 citizens.

Announcing the initiative at a press conference at his Brickdam, Georgetown conference room yesterday afternoon, Ramsammy asked the public to cooperate with the 20 workers who will be properly identified to conduct the almost countrywide survey.

It will be based on the use of a standardised, pre-coded anonymous questionnaire widely tested by Family Health International (FHI), which has been contracted to help coordinate a US$3.4M American-financed onslaught on HIV/AIDS here.

"We are excited that for the first time we will have comprehensive, standardised data that will further improve our intervention (against the disease) in Guyana," Ramsammy told reporters.

In its first year, the survey will target male and female secondary school youths between 15 - 19 years old, and male and female out of school youths between 15 - 24 years old who are not attending school, not married nor cohabitating, and living in urban centres.
Men who have sex with men; commercial sex workers; Police, and military personnel working and living in base and interior camps are also among the target groups.

Ramsammy said the Guyana Sugar Corporation has also asked for its workers to be surveyed as a follow-up on its HIV/AIDS policy - a move he commended.

The groups were selected by participants representing Government and international agencies, the private sector and non-governmental organisations at a consensus meeting.

Existing data shows a five to seven per cent prevalence rate, with the largest number of cases among the 20 - 49 year old age group. They accounted for 75 per cent of the 423 cases recorded in 2002.

The epidemic is considered to be generalised with some 3.5 - 5 per cent of the general population infected. But defined sub-populations have had consistently higher prevalence rates.

"Given the age distribution and perceived dynamics of the HIV epidemic in Guyana, it was decided that BSS should focus on youths, members of the disciplined services and members of high risk sub-populations (men having sex with men and commercial sex workers)", Ramsammy said.

The questionnaire will cover the socio-demographic characteristics of the respondent; opinions and attitudes towards sexual behaviour; history of sexual behaviour; knowledge and use of condoms with different types of partners and knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases, symptoms and treatment-seeking behaviour.

It will also seek information on knowledge, attitudes and opinions about HIV/AIDS; experience with people living with HIV/AIDS; alcohol and drug use; knowledge of and access to anti-retroviral medications and exposure to interventions under way in Guyana.

The survey, to be conducted in eight of the country's administrative regions, will help establish a monitoring system that will track behavioural trend data for high risk and vulnerable target groups that influence the epidemic here. It will also provide information on behavioural trends of key target groups in some of the same catchment areas where HIV sentinel site data are being tracked.

Other objectives of the study are to provide information to help guide programme planning; provide evidence of relative success of combined HIV prevention efforts at selected sites and gather data in a standardised format to allow for comparison with other BSS in Guyana and overseas.

Ramsammy said the survey will make a "tremendous advancement" in surveillance methods, which currently show a "progressive increase" in the annual incidence of documented HIV/AIDS cases - 263 in 1998 to 423 in 2002. Last year's AIDS cases revealed more males than females in all age groups, except 20 - 24. Females, however, outnumbered males in the under 25 year old HIV category.

Region Four (Demerara/Mahaica) has the highest incidence rate of 144.8 per 10,000 persons and Region Ten (Upper Berbice/Upper Demerara), the second highest rate of 86.6 per 10,000.

FHI Guyana Manager, Bob Hollister, noted that Guyana will be able to use the information gathered with the BSS, to be repeated every two years, to target vulnerable and affected groups. This will help to "reduce the stigma, discrimination, harm and consequences of the epidemic," he said.

And United States Agency for International Development (USAID) representative, Bill Slater, observed that the survey will give Guyana a wealth of data. "We all have some anecdotal information we like to use. You hear a lot of messages going out, but this is gonna give us the hard numbers to base our programmes on, so we're very excited...".

USAID and the U.S Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are leading the US-funded HIV/AIDS fight here.

CDC Guyana Director, Dr Navindra Persaud, and Dr Frederick Cox of the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association, another partner in the initiative, were also at yesterday's press conference.