Antigua St. Johns - A combination of lifestyle, cultural and behavioural changes is what’s required to break the chain of transmission and social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS.
Those sentiments were echoed and re-echoed throughout the fifth launch of the annual Regional HIV Testing Day held at Scotiabank’s High Street branch on Wednesday under the theme “A Healthy Lifestyle Getting To Zero New HIV Infections.”
The first Regional HIV Testing Day was instituted in 2008 by the Caribbean Broadcasting Media Partnership (CBMP) on HIV and AIDS with the 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 Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP).
The Antigua & Barbuda launch was a collaboration of the AIDS Secretariat in the Ministry of Health, Social Transformation, Consumer Affairs & Local Government, Scotiabank, PANCAP and CBMP.
Between 9 am and 4 pm on Friday, June 29, Scotiabank’s High Street and Woods Centre locations will facilitate professionals from the Ministry of Health, the AIDS Secretariat and other participating agencies to conduct testing for HIV/AIDS, Acting Country Manager Gordon Julien disclosed during the launch. The tests are free and will be conducted in strict confidence.
This initiative has made a difference in the lives of many people in Antigua & Barbuda and across the region and emotions ran high as pleas were made for persons to get tested, adopt positive habits, and re-socialise children, friends, and partners with information that empowers them to make healthy choices.
Statistics from the AIDS Secretariat have shown that 107 persons were tested in 2008, the pilot year, with this number increasing to 232 in 2010. In 2011, for the first time testing was done in Barbuda under the Regional HIV 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, and Consumer Affairs & Local Government Senator Malaka Parker emphasised that the issue of HIV/AIDS prevention is a complex problem and 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.
Senator Parker said there seems to be the feminisation of HIV/AIDS, with the rates of infection among young females being higher than among their male counterparts.
“I wonder if by this theme, we are in fact saying that it is the women and girls, through their lifestyles, have a greater disposition to contracting this disease.”
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, socialisation 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,” she said.
The Parliamentary Secretary issued a firm call to Antiguan and Barbudans, especially the younger residents and women “to exercise that power of choice in determining, when you have sex, who you choose 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.”