Minister woos 'condom-in-prison' debate
--- says 700 pregnant women HIV-positive! By Shirwin Campbell
Guyana Chronicle
December 11, 2003

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Minister of Health Dr. Leslie Ramsammy has expressed his approval of the ongoing debate that his controversial statement has triggered on the distribution of condoms in the prison.

While delivering the feature address at the launching of an AIDS Awareness Centre at the University of Guyana yesterday, the Minister stated, "the debate that has ensued is precisely what I was after. Such decisions should never be made lightly and should benefit from national discussion. In this sense I am delighted and grateful that a debate has started and I hope that persons will involve themselves in rationale and civil discussion."

Several television stations gave extensive coverage to the debate while newspapers dedicated at least a page for the general public to share their views and opinions on the distribution of condoms in the prison.

The Minister however cautioned members of the media and the general public who are demonizing him.

He stated, "Demonizing me is unproductive. I remain resolute that some intervention is necessary. I have suggested one intervention that has proven effective in other countries. I hope all those who are demonizing me would remember to offer an alternative solution, one that would bring quick results and that we all could find a comfort zone."

In an attempt to bring clarity to the issue, he noted that in terms of the use of condoms in prison it is wrong to say that this is a Government proposal. The fact is that at the Berbice Campus (where a similar launching was held November 28), I was alluding to the role of the University to explore ideas and to provide suggestions as to how societal problems could be addressed.

"It is my view that the University ought to be a place where societal problems are identified and debated and ideas are explored. It is in this context that I raised the HIV/AIDS problem that is affecting societies in every country. As an example I citied one of the issues as sexual activities in prisons" Minister Ramsammy stated.

Noting that such activities are present in all prisons in the world, he pointed out that authorities have tried for centuries to address this issue without much success.

In the end the Minister of Home Affairs will have to make a decision based on proposals from the Minister of Health, he explained but noted "I have not made such a proposal and it would be interesting to see how the debate turns out"

The Minister urged that these efforts and more should continue but added that until more successes are accomplished we must face the reality that there is sex in prison and the data worldwide is that HIV is transmitted via this practice.

While lauding the University of Guyana and the Berbice Campus for the initiative he emphasized that if we are going to win this battle, our nation must be galvanized for the fight and while we have an impressive network of people and groups working to bring awareness to the population we have much work to do.

Noting its global effect on the world, Minister Ramsammy stated over 42 million are today living with HIV/AIDS and more than 29 million have died because of HIV/AIDS since its inception in 1981.

The Minister added that 16,000 persons are newly affected everyday, 8,000 die each day and the number of deaths per year equals the total deaths that occurred in NAZI holocaust.

Bringing the devastating plague closer home, he noted that in Guyana over 1000 died this year because of HIV/AIDS and approximately 200 to 400 children would be born infected.

Also in Guyana, approximately 700 pregnant women each year are also HIV positive and between 5 to 7% of persons between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV positive. "This constitutes a major national problem," the Minister noted.

During his address he also said that it is his belief that every prisoner should be offered testing prior to incarceration and on leaving prison.

Also all persons coming into our hospitals and clinics, students entering college and commercial sex workers should be offered testing. He added that he is in no way suggesting that anyone should be forced to take the test but mechanisms be put in place for such voluntary testing.

Chairman of the launching was Dr. Carl Hanoman, Medical Director, School of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Guyana. A special presentation on sex education was done by Ms. Ruby Green Lecturer, Programme Director of Post graduate Programmes in Reproductive Health, Keele's University, Staffordshire, United Kingdom.