HIV behaviour survey takes off in sugar industry today
Stabroek News
April 23, 2004

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The Ministry of Health in conjunction with the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association (GRPA) will today launch the Guysuco leg of the Behavioural Surveil-lance Survey (BSS) in an effort to understand social patterns in relation to the spread of HIV.

This operation, which would involve interviewing persons working in the sugar industry, is an extension of similar exercises that began in December 2003 among school and out-of-school youths.

At a press briefing held at Herdmanston House yesterday, Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy underscored that any strategy aimed at reducing the spread of HIV must address people's behaviour.

He said that from today around 40 health care workers will be interviewing sugar workers in Enmore and Enterprise on the East Coast Demerara and this exercise is to last two weeks.

The health workers will also survey sugar workers in estates in Regions Three, Four and Six and this should be completed by August this year. He said the end of the programme would be marked by a dissemination workshop where all the stakeholders will review and discuss the findings of the BSS.

He said based on the findings of the BSS, the ministry will see if any of its findings needs reviewing or adjusting. Ramsammy added that the Guyana Police Force, the Guyana Defence Force, commercial sex workers and men who have sex with men would also be targeted in subsequent surveys.

The Presidential Emer-gency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is funding the programme and Family Health International (FHI) is the agency contracted to coordinate it. FHI has contracted the GRPA as the NGO with the responsibility for carrying out the surveys. According to Ramsammy, the GRPA was selected because of its work in Guyana in family health services.

The United States Agency for International Develop-ment (USAID) also had a role in the funding of the programme. The minister said the cost of the exercise is in the region of $70M.

He said the programme stemmed from the realisation that though HIV was preventable, its spread was driven by people's behaviour. He said Guysuco was chosen for the behaviour survey since it was the largest single employer in Guyana and has a well-established health care service. "We want to see how [the behaviour of] workers of one estate setting would differ from that of another," he said. He noted too that Guysuco was one of the first agencies to begin putting together a workplace programme on HIV/AIDS.

Ramsammy said since then about 18 others have followed suit. "I am encouraging all other workplaces to [join] in the fight against HIV/AIDS," he said.

Ramsammy noted that the survey was also aimed at educating people on the dangers of HIV/AIDS. "We learn not only of their behaviour but also of their needs. In the end we will know what is driving people in societies."

He said very often policies and strategies are based on assumptions of how people behave. "We thought it best to verify."

The BSS would allow for the ministry to understand the behaviour that puts people of different groups at risk. The findings of the study would be reported on during a workshop to be held in September. But he added that the first report from the studies done on the school and out-of-school youths should be completed within weeks.

Chief Executive of Guysuco Michael Boast said he was honoured to be part of the exercise in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He said his company's involvement began about a year ago, developing policies to govern the programme.

Boast said the company would need to develop strategies to deal with the problems the survey might find. But he made the point that Guysuco and the nation as a whole needed to deal with the problem in a targeted fashion, since funds were not unlimited. He said once the information is gathered then the programmes could be put together. He said that persons might use the necessary protective clothing and gear for work in a particular industry but in their private lives those same people may take unbelievably unintelligent risks in their social behaviour.

General Secretary of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers' Union (GAWU) Seepaul Narine urged sugar workers to be straightforward when giving information to the health workers.

He said apart from the Guysuco workers, everyone in Guyana would benefit. The National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees is also part of the effort. (Johann Earle)