The fifth annual Regional HIV Testing Day was launched, on 27th June under the theme, “A Healthy Lifestyle Getting To Zero New HIV infections.”
On Friday 29th June, between the hours of 9am-4pm, Gordon Julien –Country Manager Scotiabank Antigua & Barbuda said, the bank will throw open its doors to the public at two locations (Woods Centre and High Street) for testing.
Professionals from the Ministry of Health, the AIDS Secretariat and other participating agencies will conduct testing, “thereby demonstrating by example, that testing for HIV and AIDS should not be feared nor shunned.” Julien said.
The tests are free and will be conducted in the strictest of confidence and anonymity that this process deserves.
Statistics from the AIDS Secretariat have shown that 107 persons were tested in 2008, during the pilot year of the initiative, with this number increasing to 232 in 2010.
In 2011, for the first time testing was done in Barbuda under the Regional Testing Day banner and the number of persons tested in Antigua and Barbuda almost doubled to 427, with 71 persons tested in Barbuda.
Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Social Transformation, Consumer Affairs & Local Government Senator Malaka Parker emphasized that the issue of HIV/AIDS prevention is a complex problem that requires a multifaceted approach with particular attention to cultural norms.
“…As individuals we must appreciate that HIV/AIDS depends not only on the individual, but on the collective. Your lifestyle choices can affect another, and it is when we assess the full aggregate of data concerning the spread of HIV/AIDS, we see patterns of increase that speak to particular demographics, that speak to a pattern of behaviour,” She said.
The comparison of HIV/AIDS to other termed, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and perhaps high cholesterol, may not be that easy to make a similar link to the spread of HIV/AIDS and life style choices. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has had a profound impact on the Caribbean region and while the language surrounding HIV/AIDS is changing; the region continues to grapple with the reality that the Caribbean remains second in the world in terms of prevalence, to sub Saharan Africa.
This “unattractive ranking”, the Senator warns must send a strong signal that our attitudes must display that we understand the gravity of our lifestyles. She concluded that, “it is therefore evident, based on the contrast between the two countries that culture, socialization and religion has an impact on how we address issues related to our reproductive health and rights….HIV/AIDS is in fact a lifestyle disease. As interesting l as it may seem on the face of it, we must accept that it is our attitudes towards sex, sexuality and the way we are socialized around this issue that dictates the type of choices we make as individuals, even when armed with information.”
The Parliamentary Secretary with responsibility for Health, issued a firm call to Antiguan and Barbudans, especially, young people and women, “to exercise that power of choice in determining, when you have sex, who you chose to make your sexual partner, understanding that their lifestyle has consequences for you, and we ask you to exercise choice in the terms on which you negotiate sex.”
Meanwhile, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rhonda Sealy Thomas examined the epidemic from the perspective of its concentrated impacts within the 15-49 year old age group since the first case of HIV was diagnosed in 1985. She said however that though the most economically productive sector of our population is affected by the epidemic, the twin island state has long embraced the concept of universal access to prevention, care, treatment and support even before it was adopted by other governments in 2006.
In Antigua and Barbuda from 1985 to present there were 919 persons who tested positive for HIV, 487 males and 432 females. In 2011, there were two hundred and sixteen persons (216) with advanced HIV infection. Of that amount one hundred and eighty six (186) were on Anti Retro viral Treatment at the end of 2011. Two Hundred and seventeen 217 persons have died from AIDS related illness. Twenty seven (27) persons were lost to follow up, while the age group most infected with HIV is the 20 to 49 age group.
She challenged other private sector organizations and institutions to be as enterprising as Scotiabank and partner with the Ministry of Health not only with HIV/AIDS, but, also in other challenging public health issues such as immunization and chronic non -communicable diseases such as diabetes and cancer.
It was also noted that to ensure that Antigua and Barbuda gets to zero new HIV infections by 2015 every citizen is required to know their HIV Status, Dr. Amina Goodwin –Fernandez Clinical Care Co-ordinator reiterated that there is “hope” for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS as in Antigua & Barbuda there is a high quality of service.
Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership on HIV/AIDS, Representative Mitzi Allen of HAMA production brought greetings on the behalf of the Executive Director Dr. Allyson Leacock. She disclosed the continuous training for journalists to sensitize the populace on issues relating to HIV/AIDS with objectives to eliminate against stigma and discrimination. Significant emphasis was also placed on knowing one’s status through a region-wide campaign dubbed “LIVE UP”.
The Regional HIV Testing Day was conceived by the Caribbean Broadcasting Media Partnership with media mounting a month-long campaign; the exemplary support from the private-sector in Scotiabank offering its locations as some of the testing sites; and the delivery of the technical expertise of voluntary counseling and testing by the public sector through Ministries and Departments of Health, mobilized by PANCAP.