Going around in circles
Kaieteur News
March 18, 2007

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HIV/AIDS has long been a curse on mankind. Small countries like Guyana have been hard hit because the disease affected the cream of the productive sector. With the disease came discrimination and the need for medical specialists who would have been concentrating on other areas of health care.

Poor countries like Guyana have had to find money, a commodity that is already scarce, to treat the infected. This country has not had to build special facilities but it had to create treatment centres and employ people to operate these centres.

But there has been the pressure on the rest of society. The families of the affected people had to cope with the stares and whispers from their neighbours. They, in turn, turned their embarrassment into anger and directed this anger at the victim.

In addition to this was the need to spend money on programmes to teach the wider society about HIV/AIDS and at the same time teach the rest of the society about measures to protect itself. And this has by no means been a cheap exercise. The cost of producing the various programmes, airing these programmes and taking them across the country has called for money that could have gone to numerous other areas of health care.

But for all the focus on the education there have been problems. Health personnel refused to accept that mere contact with victims could not promote the spread of the disease. In this day and age one would have expected that the people providing the care would have been among the first to recognise that the disease could only be spread by certain specific means.

However, we have found that doctors are refraining from treating some patients. In Trinidad, the word is that there is a shortage of doctors to man the clinics that provide HIV/AIDS care. One would have expected that they would have been the ones to demonstrate that with proper behaviour they could not be infected.

Instead, they have chosen to abandon the patients to the extent that the society must now seek recruits, many coming from outside the country. We are certain that more than a few are Guyanese who are only too keen to seek their fortunes outside the country.

We have not been strangers to nurses leaving. For more than two decades Guyanese nurses have been migrating, many to the Caribbean. At one time, more than 70 per cent of the nurses working in hospitals in Antigua were Guyanese. It has been no different in the hospitals in the United Kingdom and the United States although the percentage may not be as high as in the other Caribbean countries.

This situation in Trinidad is certain to affect Guyana in more ways than the migration of the nurses. It is not unusual for people in this country to take their cue from others. Guyanese, who at present know the facts about the disease, may soon begin questioning themselves. They, and we hope not, may conclude that the Trinidad doctors may know something that they, the Guyanese, do not know.

This disease has been with the world for nearly three decades. Scientists believe that it has been there longer but was only diagnosed in the 1980s. One British laboratory that kept tissue samples for very long periods actually resurrected a sample from the 1950s and examined it again when the tests for HIV/AIDS became standard.

It turned out that the person from whom the tissue had been taken in the 1950s was infected with HIV and may have died of AIDS.

With the disease being around for so long, one would expect that, short of finding a cure, people would have known just about everything about it. In the same way how they determined that the disease was more than a homosexual disease and that intravenous drug users were prone to infection, surely they would have known that treating people could not lead to an infection.

We now appear to be heading for another problem in the area of treatment even as we try to get people to change their behaviour. And unfortunately, we are not good at conducting surveys to determine whether the money we have spent has yielded the desired results.

The Health Minister is confident that the programme to restrict transmission from mother to child has been a resounding success but can he tell us whether the other programmes are leading to a drop in the rate of infection?