AIDS: All Not Infected, But All Are
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
THE SPECTRE OF HIV/AIDS
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.
ALL NOT INFECTED, BUT ALL ARE AFFECTED...
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.
THE NATURE OF THE PROBLEM
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
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.
HOPE IN THE FACE OF CRISIS
But my message today is not only about doom and gloom; it is also about hope and
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.
NOT A DEATH SENTENCE
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.
ABSTINENCE – THE KEY
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
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.
CHANGE RISKY HABITS
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
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
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.
EMPOWER OUR WOMEN
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
The increase in new infections year after year is not inevitable – and therefore
it is unacceptable.
FIVE KEY ELEMENTS
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
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.