War against HIV is here and now
-Ramsammy tells social marketing launch
Stabroek News
March 17, 2004

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"The war against HIV/AIDS cannot be postponed, cannot be delayed, cannot be left for a time when our circumstances, whether financial, human resources or other, might be more comfortable. The urgency in dealing with HIV/AIDS is compelling enough to force us to devote all possible resources and energy towards stopping the plague."

This was the warning delivered by Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy when he delivered the feature address at the launching of a social marketing programme at the Le Meridien Pegasus Hotel on Thursday. The programme comprises broad-based behaviour change, voluntary testing and counselling (VCT), social marketing and condom social marketing. It is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented through Population Services International (PSI) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

The minister, just back from the USA where he underwent heart surgery, said the HIV/AIDS pandemic must be placed on the table in a tangible way. Developing countries cannot use the traditional explanations and/or excuses for not dealing with the problem.

The minister stressed that Guyana cannot make the mistake of dealing with HIV/AIDS too late as unfortunately many countries are now paying the price for that mistake.

According to the minister, for countries such as Guyana with its severe developmental constraints to place the problem high on its agenda it would need change agents, people and organisations that would be willing to work towards finding solutions. "We must have vision and we must have courage to take the necessary actions that would realise the vision."

Without a shared vision that is compelling and truly embraced with passion, it is nearly impossible for any organisation or country to be successful.

The social marketing programme will entail a series of campaigns designed to improve knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour regarding HIV and AIDS and to help prevent the spread of the virus in Guyana.

PSI's Country Director Moussa Abbo said it will increase preventative behaviour among the entire population, particularly among high-risk groups. Helping individuals improve their knowledge about the transmission of HIV, their self-risk perception, their own risk management, and to ensure widespread access to high quality and affordable VCT services and condoms, he said, will do this.

He said ultimately PSI will encourage healthier behaviour through messages to promote knowledge of one's HIV status, delay of sexual debut, partner reduction, and where appropriate, consistent condom use.

It is expected that the new initiative will promote a robust, nationwide, information, education and communication campaign directed at behaviour change, particularly among high risk groups, including youth, commercial sex workers and their clients, and men who have sex with men.

The aim is to assist key partners in improving the quality of VCT services and increasing demand for those services and also to focus on professionalism and confidentiality. It will see the conducting of a condom distribution campaign to issue low-cost condoms to high-risk groups. The new VIVE brand condom, developed by USAID/Guyana and PSI will be sold at $60 per pack of four and will be available at venues such as bars, clubs and street vendors.

Abbo said many people in Guyana are fearful of having a HIV test because they do not want to know their status and do not feel confidentiality will be maintained.

US Ambassador to Guyana Roland Bullen, adding his voice to the call for more to be done in the fight, said confronting the threat of the virus must be an important and urgent responsibility for each and every person.

He noted that in Guyana it is estimated that some 18,000 people are living with HIV and AIDS. "While we are aware of the potential impact the epidemic can have on the Guyanese population, we also recognise that there is a great degree of hope in averting further disaster, if we boost our prevention efforts."

He said there is no doubt that HIV/AIDS represents one of the greatest challenges of human time. "Its defeat will require constant and concerted commitment from all of us. In order to maximise the impact of out efforts, the United States is committed to working with governments, the private sector, civil society groups, and others to develop a comprehensive response to expand treatment, care and support and prevention services."

The ambassador said that working together these goals should be mere stepping-stones to a world in which AIDS no longer has control of the future.

PSI, which established an office here in July last year, was founded in 1970 in order to apply power and creativity of the private sector to family planning. Initially it worked exclusively in international family planning, mostly in South Asia (hence the name Population Services International). PSI grew rapidly in the 1990s, mostly in condom social marketing for AIDS prevention in Africa and in 1992 it took the technology home, launching a domestic social marketing project on the West Coast of the US.

Since its arrival in Guyana, Abbo said, PSI has created and trained a group of peer educator promoters who conduct on a daily basis street theatre for HIV/AIDS prevention and behaviour change, targeting the high-risk groups. So far the group has carried out activities in New Amsterdam, Linden, Bartica, Essequibo and Georgetown.

PSI is also providing technical and material support to the Health Ministry in its `me to you, reach one save one' campaign and also sponsored Miss Universe to promote abstinence to school children among other things.