Friday, January 26, 2007 at 7:55 AM

Good (news) Friday: The First Caribbean Summit on HIV/AIDS…Hallelujah!

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

I was heartened when I read that the First Caribbean Summit on HIV/AIDS was convened in St. Croix last Sunday. But, given that this virus has been ravaging our people like a Biblical plague for years now, I could not help thinking that this summit was long overdue. And, truth be told, my spirit was dampened by the fact that it was held in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and not in one of our leading countries like Jamaica or The Bahamas.Yet I appreciate that a few of our regional leaders have finally taken their heads out of our soft sand to recognise that AIDS is the “fifth horseman of the Apocalypse” – as declared by keynote speaker George Allyene, United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean.

I am also mindful, however, that these leaders face a daunting – but absolutely critical – task of disabusing our people of prevailing social taboos and religious dogma that affect their disregard for this virus. Because only then will they be receptive to education about the factors that have caused the alarming incidence of HIV/AIDS in our midst (including promiscuous heterosexual sex), and about the treatment and prevention methods currently available to combat it (including the diligent use of male and female condoms).

Conversely, I hope this summit finally exposes the salutary neglect of all heads of government who have either refused for political reasons or failed because of fatal ignorance to apply for treatment and education funds from the $15 billion President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PETFAR) that George W. Bush initiated in 2003.

In fact, given the resources available – including access to heavily-discounted anti-retroviral drugs through President Clinton’s Global Initiative to fight HIV/AIDS (CGI) – I feel constrained to indict all of our leaders. Because it’s their collective failure of leadership that has allowed this virus to infect so many of our people that there are now over 350,000 living with HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, which amounts to the highest prevalence of HIV in any region of the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa.

Then, of course, there’s the haunting fact that many of those infected are unaware of their condition because our leaders have done so little to erase the stigma attached even to being tested for HIV. Never mind the far more damning fact of tens of thousands who die each year of AIDS (with 27,000 deaths reported in 2005).

Incidentally, apropos the importance of being tested, I wonder if it will take Oprah and Sen. Barack Obama coming to our islands and being tested publicly for HIV (as they did separately in Africa recently) before some of our leaders feel sufficiently moved to launch comprehensive treatment and prevention programmes?

Finally, since Haiti is the black sheep everyone takes a socially-indignant whack at whenever HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean is discussed, I hope the following reduces the prevalence of ignorance throughout the region about our “Haitian problem”:

It is, in fact, tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand for anyone to think that because Haitians account for the overwhelming majority of people living with HIV/AIDS that the rest of us are relatively immune. Because, when adjusted for population size, the ratio of people living with HIV/AIDS in The Bahamas (7000), with an estimated population of 300,000, is virtually the same – at 2.3% – as that of people living with this virus in Haiti (190,000), with an estimated population of 8,300,000, which is also 2.3%.

Now, please, think about that….

NOTE: At this summit, John Maginley, Antigua and Barbuda’s Minister of Health, Sports and Youth Affairs lamented the “huge challenge [a] plague of commercial-sex workers” presents in his country’s fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS. And, with the documented number of prostitutes estimated at 5000, out a population of 75,000 (i.e. 6.6%), his lamentation is quite understandable. After all, adjusted for population, that would be equivalent to the U.S. having to contend with an open and notorious swarm of 19 million prostitutes.

Nevertheless, I encourage Maginley to apply directly to PEPFAR and CGI for readily available aid to continue his enlightened efforts to educate his people and provide them with as many prophylactics to prevent transmission of, and ARV drugs to treat, HIV/AIDS.

As for the sex workers, however, chances are that many of them are far more educated than our regional leaders are about the transmission and prevention of this virus. Therefore, where Antiguans might find their presence morally anathema, they probably do not pose the health challenge he posits.

But on a positive note, with sex workers comprising such a significant percentage of his work force, I urge Maginley to appreciate the benefits of not only regulating their activities, but also taxing their profits to help fund HIV/AIDS education and treatment for the general population.

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