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Caribbean Sees Progress on HIV/AIDS, Fears Funding Cuts

WASHINGTON, Jul 30 2012 (IPS) - Ian McKnight, executive director of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVCC), used one word – “tokenistic” – to sum up his perspective on the 19th International AIDS Conference that ended here over the weekend.

Addressing the final session of the six-day event, McKnight said while “hubs” were important for allowing delegates to voice their opinions in small gatherings, these same delegates were not given the same opportunity at gatherings attended by scientists, officials and other major stakeholders.

The Caribbean has the second highest incidence of HIV/AIDS after sub-Saharan Africa. McKnight said he was disappointed that the conference had excluded vulnerable populations, such as drugs users and sex workers, from making their position known.

U.S. President Barack Obama lifted a travel ban on HIV-positive travelers, but some sex workers say they were denied visas to attend the conference.

“It is nothing short of an abomination that they have been excluded from this conference …we need their voices and their issues here with us at this conference.

“So these half baked attempts at including people who use drugs and sex workers are tokenistic and it must stop now,” he said to loud applause.

Prior to the official start of the conference, the executive director of the Barbados-based Caribbean Media Broadcast Partnership (CMBP), Dr. Allyson Leacock, said that while the Caribbean media had adopted a significant role in educating and informing the public about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, she was also fearful that the conference would sideline Caribbean concerns.

She said the challenge for the Caribbean is that its population is so small and donors and other agencies “tend to use these numbers when HIV has the same potential to decimate the region”.

Jamaica’s health minister, Dr. Fenton Ferguson also appealed to the international community not to cut back on aid to the region as it deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“The move to make funding decisions based on limited criteria such as World Bank country rankings without wider economic and potential impact assessments will be judged as an error by history if allowed to stand.

“These decisions threaten the very lives of the people we have just saved, “he said, adding that Jamaica, and the region as a whole, “cannot go it alone from here”.

“We need the continued support of our international development partners, who if they abandon us now, in the words of Michele Sidebe (UNAIDS executive director) would be making a decision to let HIV regain a foothold and flourish in Jamaica and they would be making a decision to abandon the next generation of children to HIV,” he said.

Ferguson said a recent study indicates that Jamaica would need 30 million dollars annually by 2030 compared to 15 million annually today to sustain its HIV programmes.

“We could therefore see a doubling of the cost to the response if the investments to mitigate its impact are not made now,” he said, adding “today Jamaica, like many other countries, is concerned about the potential impact of the global financial crisis on the sustainability of its national response to HIV”.

McKnight said cutting back was not an option, adding that all the progress being touted at the conference “would be doomed to failure if we do not have the funding to do this work”.

“None of it, none of it can ever happen without serious commitments and so we call again on our governments and say renew your calls to take ownership for this response and to make the investment necessary and to end AIDS,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said more than 150 million dollars in new U.S. spending initiatives geared toward leveraging progress against AIDS already achieved through new drug treatments, programmes to stop mother-to-child transmission of HIV and the preventive effect of expanded voluntary male circumcision.

But there were suggestions here that the US funds were geared more towards Africa than the Caribbean.

In a report titled “Together We Will End AIDS” released ahead of the conference, UNAIDS noted that AIDS-related deaths in the Caribbean have declined by almost 50 percent in 10 years.

AIDS-related deaths fell to about 10,000 in 2011, nearly half of the figure for 2001, in the almost 30 years since the start of the AIDS epidemic.

“This is in large part due to the relatively high antiretroviral treatment coverage of 67 percent for the Caribbean as a whole. At present 230,000 people are living with HIV in the Caribbean. The estimated number of persons who were newly infected with the virus last year was 13,000,” the report said.

UNAIDS said that about 1,100 children became infected with HIV in the Caribbean in 2011, the majority in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which together comprise 68 percent of the region’s HIV epidemic.

UNAIDS said that many of the member countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) “are close to achieving elimination targets for the prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT).”

But there is need for caution. “We don’t want people to think that the AIDS epidemic is over because we have eight million people in treatment,” UNAIDS deputy executive director Paul De Lay told IPS after participating in a panel discussion on “HIV/AIDS and the News Agenda – Implications for Ending the Epidemic”.

“We need to work with the media to ensure that we are putting the right spin on the data,” De Lay said, noting that while it is important to note that eight million people were receiving medical treatment for the virus, “underneath that figure is a lot of people who are not getting treatment”.

Professor of gender studies at the University of Michigan, Dr. Neisha Haniff, told IPS that Caribbean countries need to ensure that data presented on the epidemic in the region adequately cover all categories of people, particularly women.

“I think what is happening is we are not paying as much attention to women and the categories of women and the numbers and the infection rate,” she said.

“We are using old information we need to generate new information and include groups that are difficult to access,” she said, emphasising the need “to continue the focus on women even though we are paying attention to other marginalised groups”.

Guyana is on track to become the first country in the Caribbean to completely end mother-to-child HIV transmission.

“Guyana’s approach has worked. We have seen the prevalence of HIV in pregnant women falling from three to five per cent to 0.18 percent and the general population prevalence falling from three to five per cent to 0.8 and one percent,” said former health minister Dr. Leslie Ramsammy.

 
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