Fresh hope for HIV/AIDS victims By Shirwin Campbell
Guyana Chronicle
August 4, 2004

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MINISTER of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, yesterday declared that by the next six years Guyana should not have any record of new cases of HIV or a child born with the virus.
And all forms of stigma and discrimination should be removed to the extent that all Guyanese can freely access counselling and testing at a centre in every community in the country, he said at the opening of one such outpost.

His projection came while officially opening a Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre (VCT) at Parika, East Bank Essequibo, an initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Population Services International (PSI) and the Ministry of Health.

Ramsammy added that any surviving person with HIV must have access to treatment, care and support and with the current care and support and treatment being provided, those living with HIV/AIDS will be alive in 2010.

While some persons would claim these ambitious goals "are unrealistic", he said his response would be, "I unequivocally denounce such pessimism...these objectives are not only imaginable but possible."

The minister stated that the goals in the fight against HIV/AIDS are: to ensure that every Guyanese, in every region has access to information - the empowering tool; that every Guyanese knows his/her status, and to ensure that the stigma and discrimination associated with HIVAIDS is eliminated forever.

He acknowledged the support of the U.S. Government and the coordinating bodies involved and promised that following PSI's example, VCT sites will be available across the country and be operated by non-governmental and religious organisations with a history of providing free community service. The VCTs will be located in public establishments like health centres, he added.

The centre at Parika, adjacent to the `Two Brothers Gas Station’, is a VCT site and the first 'Stand alone' centre (used exclusively for HIV counselling and testing) in Guyana. It is managed exclusively by PSI staff.

The centre is an air conditioned two-storey structure with several counselling rooms, a conference room and laboratory for testing. Its location is considered strategic since Parkia is regarded as a hot spot with booming business, banks, night clubs and other recreational activities.

Its launching follows closely on the opening of several other ventures described as 'Franchise Centres' since these are housed in existing community buildings. These are the Linden Care Foundation, Burnham Drive, Wismar, Linden; St. Francis Community Developers, East Side Line Dam, Rose Hall Town, Corentyne, Berbice and in Georgetown, Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association, Quamina Street, South Cummingsburg and Lifeline Counselling Services on Cummings Street.

PSI Country Director, Ms Pamela Faura, said the sole purpose of this venture is to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in Guyana.

She reported that the VCT in Parika is a new method in Guyana and has a record of success in Africa and Asia.

The centre will offer services not only to the people in Parika but others from the Essequibo coast and islands, Bartica and even Georgetown, she said.

Faura pointed out that the employees are qualified, well-trained and well aware of the necessity for confidentiality. She noted that in other countries confidentiality is a major fear preventing persons from accessing VCT services.

She is concerned that Guyanese prefer to wait to see if they have the HIV/AIDS symptoms before seeking counselling and testing and cautioned that persons must be tested before it is too late.

"Early treatment means a longer life,” she advised.

Her concerns were echoed by HIV/AIDS Advisor for USAID, Ms Julia Rehwinkel who also spoke briefly.

She noted that the earlier the disease is detected the earlier one can get help and live a healthier, longer life.

"Knowing your status and living in accordance is very important in fighting against HIV/AIDS,” she added.

The need for VCT to be increased is imperative as the rate of infection rises in countries, the advisor pointed out.

VCT Project Coordinator, Mr Charles Peterson told the Chronicle that the opening hours for the centre will be flexible, including Sundays and not only during regular working hours.

He added that persons from the city who are reluctant to go for counselling and testing in Georgetown, should consider accessing this site since it is far away from where they live.

A mobile VCT to serve residents on the East Coast Demerara will be launched at the Lusignan Health Centre, officials said.