AIDS Commission presents plan of attack on HIV
The National AIDS Commission today released an ambitious four-year strategic plan and two-year operational plan designed to tackle key problem areas in reducing the grip of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) on Belizean society.
Executive Director of the Commission, Dr. Martin Cuellar, told Amandala that the three listed priorities in both the strategic and operational plans – ending new HIV infections, improving the health and well-being of persons with the disease and creating an “enabling environment” by means of improving access, expanding education and changing national attitudes high and low to a disease with which 34.2 million people are living currently – are not more or less important than each other or exclusive from each other, and therefore implementation should not be done exclusively.
There were 2.5 million new infections around the world in 2011 (including 226 in Belize), and 1.7 million died from AIDS-related causes worldwide, according to the UNAIDS program of the United Nations.
2011 in Belize saw a third consecutive year of decreases in new HIV infections across the board, though young people aged 15-29 and other vulnerable populations continued to be adversely affected. Overall, some 5,000 persons are infected and living with HIV in Belize currently, according to the National AIDS Commission.
Dr. Cuellar pointed out that there are other HIV-vulnerable groups such as sex workers and homosexuals (aka men who have sex with men, or MSM). An ongoing baseline surveillance study is due later this year that will present the first information on these groups, but the work continues on changing behaviors to reduce HIV’s scourge and dispel lingering myths and stigma, both official and unofficial.
The Government, represented by CEO’s in the Ministries of Health (Dr. Peter Allen) and Human Development (Judith Alpuche), was formally handed copies of both plans, in which they have assumed their identified roles.
The NAC says it does not believe that the absence of more senior officials is any indication that Government seems to be indifferent to the cause. Already, some persons with HIV and their families are benefiting from the Government’s touted “pro-poor” initiatives such as the BOOST program and food pantry program, which has created “ease” for those persons as they struggle to fight a disease which can be ultimately fatal.
Asked if “indifference” was settling in because infections seemed to be down, Dr. Cuellar insisted that “we cannot assume that HIV, because we are seeing a decrease in new infections, is going away, or is gone, because as the actual statistics since 1985 show, that the incidence does go down from time to time, but it has the power of bouncing right back up, and we’ve seen that happen already. And, globally we’ve seen that happen; there was a time in the 90’s, when in the U.S. for example, the incidence of HIV started to fall drastically, and a lot of people ‘Okay, it’s over,’ and they went back to old habits, and old habits bring back the problem… we definitely don’t want that assumption.”
The plans come after two years of consultation and research around the country with various stakeholders, including a newly formed organization of persons living with HIV. According to Dr. Cuellar, emphasis will be placed on prevention initiatives for vulnerable sub-populations including young people between 13 and 30, specifically in education and outreach for youth out of school.
HIV, he says, will as part of their plans become “mainstream” and occupy its place in national budgets and frameworks. Outreach will be made to other key Ministries such as tourism, police and others. Finance established to underline the plans to tackle the disease will be sustained when placed in the budget, Dr. Cuellar noted, even if more attention starts to be paid elsewhere.
A legal review has also been conducted to ferret out sections of the law as it stands that may contribute to discrimination and bar to human rights and the sexual rights of all persons making them unable to protect themselves. Public consultations are due shortly on the recommendations of the NAC after which Government will be presented the findings.
By 2016, Belize has set as its goals to halt and begin reversing HIV incidence rates among young people, so-called MSM and sex workers; reduce AIDS-related deaths, especially among men with the disease, by 30%; have systems in place to fully understand the essential features of the HIV epidemic and significantly reduce discrimination against HIV-vulnerable individuals.
A combination of organizations will be working on subsidiary plans and strategies in the operational plan, including ramping up education and testing programs, reducing the cost of anti-retroviral medications, improving living conditions for persons with HIV, ending stigma and discrimination in all areas, including the law, and establishing a research base for continued study of the disease.Amandala