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AIDS: All Not Infected, But All Are Affected! - April 3, 2006

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AIDS: All Not Infected, But All Are Affected!


You must have wondered whether I had abandoned our “Conversations”. After all, the last programme was aired a long time ago. The truth is that the last few weeks have been exceedingly busy. And, the by-election and its aftermath has had a lot to do with it. But I am back, and frankly, it feels good to be back. Today, I have decided to share some thoughts with you on a neutral subject – the HIV/Aids epidemic.


A few weeks ago, I participated in a meeting of parliamentarians and politicians summoned to discuss the fight against AIDS. I regret that more representatives of the political parties, particularly the Opposition, did not attend. Some very useful information was shared with my colleagues. This information will empower us to promote the fight against the spread of AIDS and HIV.

But, as is the case everywhere else, there are differences in the approaches of different people. While many of us have moved beyond the stigmatism associated with persons affected by or working with sufferers from AIDS or HIV, there are still, unfortunately, those who continue to behave as if AIDS is a plague on Man sent by God.


Unquestionably, AIDS is a significant threat to human dignity and human life. It leaves fear and suffering everywhere it reaches. It is also a challenge to all of us -- as human beings, and as a nation -- to show compassion to our fellow men and women. Every man, woman and child who is afflicted by AIDS or HIV deserves our help and our love, because we share a common humanity. Moreover, while most of us are not infected, all of us are affected.


In some African countries the percentage of adults infected with HIV is as high as 33 percent. In the Caribbean, it is estimated that about 300,000 people are living with HIV, including the 30,000 who acquired the virus last year alone (that is, in 2005). Already, the AIDS epidemic has claimed an estimated 24,000 lives in our region.

Here in St. Lucia, I am informed that official records show that 300 of our fellow citizens are living with HIV and 246 have died. The 77 newly-infected cases reported last year is at least twice higher than corresponding figures for any given year since the first reported case in 1985.

Because of gross under-reporting and poor surveillance systems, the just-mentioned figures are said to only represent between 20-25 percent of the true estimates for our country. In other words, from what the local experts tell me, we can expect that there are between 1,200 and 1,500 Saint Lucians living with the AIDS virus. In effect, about one percent of adults are infected with HIV. This is alarming, because this level of adult prevalence means that HIV has now spread to the general population.
Indeed, according to official records, every district in the country has been touched by HIV/AIDS.

I do not wish to overwhelm you with figures, numbers and statistics about HIV/AIDS in our country or our region. However, I must forewarn you that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is an unparalleled crisis that demands extraordinary responses. Simply put, we can see much more human suffering if we do nothing, or do not respond in a comprehensive way to HIV/AIDS.


Let's talk about the sheer nature of the problem.

There are three important features about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in our country and our region.

Firstly, the HIV epidemic is not levelling off. In fact, new infections continue to grow.

Secondly, in recent times we have seen an increase in not only the number of women newly infected with HIV, but also in the proportion of all persons with HIV who are women.

Thirdly, the human toll and suffering is incalculable. Our young men and women continue to get infected, fall sick and die in their hundreds. We work in and have daily experience of the subtle genocide of our most productive Saint Lucians. Consider the hundreds of children orphaned by loss of one or both parents to AIDS. Just think about the impact of AIDS on the capacity of the government and the private sector to deliver quality services because of illness and death among service providers.


But my message today is not only about doom and gloom; it is also about hope and optimism.

More than ever before, we are experiencing a time of great opportunity to fashion an adequate response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

First of all, there is growing political impetus at home and abroad to discuss and address HIV/AIDS. These days, when global leaders meet, HIV/AIDS is quite often a priority issue on their agenda.

Secondly, we are seeing more and more instances of successful prevention efforts on all continents. With the drop in prices for anti-retroviral medicines, there is a real opportunity to bring hope to people suffering from AIDS or advanced HIV infection. In addition, resources to fund HIV/AIDS programs have increased markedly from donors and governments. Our Government has made a significant investment by borrowing US$ 8.05 Million (in excess EC$ 21 Million), over the next five years, to implement a National Strategic Plan for HIV/AIDS – the blueprint for guiding our national response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.


HIV/AIDS is no longer a hopeless death sentence –- and that is a very positive and optimistic development. New drugs and new treatments are extending and improving the lives of persons living with HIV/AIDS. So impressive is the impact of these new drugs that it is referred to as the “Lazarus effect” and people who had given up to death are suddenly alive again and have hope. When one person has hope, it usually spreads to others. We need a hopeful society to beat this epidemic. A hopeful society will think that it could win; a hopeless society quickly surrenders. We will not – and must not -- surrender to HIV/AIDS.

For almost two decades little or no treatment and care was offered to Saint Lucians who had already contracted AIDS. And so, comprehensive care to all persons living with HIV/AIDS’ is an important strategy being implemented under the National Strategic Plan, to alleviate human suffering and reverse this situation. Anti-retroviral drugs are now available free in the public sector for all who need them. We have hired a well-trained, experienced and committed physician to treat and care for our clients so that they will have a chance to continue to live positively and make their contribution to their families, the society and the economy. Every life matters to the Creator of life -- and so, every life is important to society.


Another important strategy is ‘Prevention of further transmission of HIV’. We can learn from the experiences of other countries, and adapt them to fit our situation. For example, the nation of Uganda in Africa has fought back and stalled the dramatic progress of the epidemic with an A-B-C prevention approach – A stands for ‘Abstain’, B for ‘Be faithful’ and C for use ‘Condoms’ correctly and consistently. Through sheer leadership from the highest to lowest levels, Uganda was able to cut its infection rate to 5 percent in one decade by using this A-B-C approach. We now know that Abstinence works … Being faithful works … using Condoms works. No matter which you choose – A, B or C -- each has its place.

Our country needs a moral message that is well-balanced, but also practical. In addition to other prevention methods, our children must know that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid getting infected by HIV. To survive in this HIV/AIDS generation, they must lead healthy responsible lives -- and we must ask and teach them to do so.


Prevention will require us to compassionately help drug and alcohol abusers to free themselves from their gloomy addictions. Sometimes clinical programs are successful in helping people to change bad or negative habits like taking drugs and alcohol, or risky sexual behaviour. However, most of the time a change of heart is needed to effect a change of habit. If you change your heart, you change your life. The Faith community is quite experienced and adept in addressing matters of the heart. They have a critical role to play in impacting on the behaviour that facilitates the spread or compound the effects of HIV/AIDS.

Voluntary counselling and testing for HIV is also a very important element of our national prevention strategy. This is important because we will not be able to address the problem effectively until we can diagnose it. A significant number of people infected with HIV are not aware that they are infected, because they have not taken the HIV test for various reasons. In this situation it is extremely difficult to reach people who need treatment, and the majority of new infections are spread unknowingly.

Reducing the stigma around testing for HIV and making it more widely available is fundamental. Voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) will be integrated into the health system, and will be a routine part of the delivery of health care. These services will be provided free of cost in the public sector. At least one Volunteer Counselling and Testing site will be established in each district for easy access.

Community leaders have an important role to play in eliminating the stigma and taboo associated with testing for HIV. I call on all Saint Lucians at risk to get tested for HIV for the sake of their health and the health of others, and then make it known that you have been tested. In so doing, you will be making a significant contribution to eliminating stigma, curtailing the spread and alleviating the impact of HIV in our beautiful country.


Prevention will also require us to empower our women. Many studies have demonstrated their increased vulnerability because of biological, social and economic factors that place them at higher risk of infection than men. I am particularly concerned about our young women 15-24 years of age, whose risk of HIV infection more than doubles that of their male counterparts – according to official records. Women and girls must make responsible life choices about their sexuality, their health and their right to demand equal treatment in their relationships with their partners. They need to access the information and services available to help them take charge of their life and protect themselves.

The increase in new infections year after year is not inevitable – and therefore it is unacceptable.


We must learn lessons from the few developing nations that have demonstrated real successes in their response to HIV/AIDS, particularly with respect to prevention of new infections and especially among young people. Once we have learned these lessons, tailored and implemented them according to our own situation, we will need to sustain the successes.

Five key elements have been found in every effective response, and these should form the basis of all our efforts in moving forward. Here are the elements:

1.Courageous Leadership – This is important, not only from the highest level, but at all levels. More money is undoubtedly necessary. However, wise programming is critical. But without leadership on the part of everyone involved, we will lose.

2.Comprehensiveness – sustained but simultaneous approaches on prevention, treatment and mitigation of impacts of HIV/AIDS;

3.Inclusiveness – it is impossible for this epidemic to be brought under control by the health sector or the government alone. Broad participation of all sectors and people of all walks of life are needed, including people living with HIV/AIDS.

4.Elimination of Stigma and Discrimination – stigma and discrimination are major barriers to encouraging persons to use prevention and care services. The human rights and dignity of persons living with HIV/AIDS must be guaranteed and respected at all times.

5.Act Sooner or Pay Later – Africa has learned the hard lesson that denial and ignorance will not stop the epidemic from spreading. This is a lesson that we must internalize and act upon from today.

All of these important measures are needed to enable more Saint Lucians infected or affected by HIV/AIDS to live longer and more productive lives.


But in the face of all this suffering there is hope and courage. With hope, life can prevail. We want all Saint Lucians to triumph over this great crisis.

I thank you for sharing in this conversation today, and urge your love and your compassion for those living with HIV.

May God continue to bless all those who suffer, and may we comfort them as and bring them peace and hope.

I thank you.


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