Tuesday, December 1, 2009

World AIDS Day observed in Belize

It is estimated that globally there were thirty-three point two million people infected with HIV at the end of 2007. The disease continues to be a prevailing concern, which is why every December first is set aside as World AIDS Day to bring awareness to the epidemic. Locally, statistics show that there were two hundred and twenty-eight new infections in the first six months of 2008 and in 2007, HIV was the fourth leading cause of death in Belize for the overall population and jumped to number one among the thirty to forty-nine age group. As has become the tradition, every year around this time, the Ministry of Health holds a press conference to update the public and its partners on strides made and work yet to be done in the field. The biggest news coming out of this year’s exercise was the release of the National HIV Epidemiological Profile 2003-2007. News Five’s Kendra Griffith has the findings.

Dr. Marvin Manzanero, Director, Nat’l AIDS Program

“I think it’s good data, lots of data. It took lots of work from the Epidemiology Unit to compile the data and it will allow us to take a critical look at where we have been in the last five years.”
Kendra Griffith, Reporting

Some of the information coming out of the profile was not necessarily new, such as the HIV epidemic is most concentrated among the fifteen to forty-nine year old population... eighty-three percent to be exact. Five percent of HIV infections also occurred in the zero to fourteen year old population. But there were some blows when it came to testing.

Ethan Gough, National Epidemiologist

“We see that nationally we have had a forty-four point three percent decrease in the amount of persons tested countrywide every year and that represents an average decrease of six hundred and eleven persons tested per hundred thousand population per year. When we look at the prevalence of HIV among the persons who have been tested, we see an increase from 2003 to 2007 of sixty-two point one percent. We went from a prevalence of three point one to five point O. That can be partly explained by the fact that we have tested less people, but the number of cases that we identify every year has not changed.”
Ethan Gough, the National Epidemiologist in the Ministry of Health, assisted in compiling the data.

Ethan Gough:

“We’ve done some estimates, some estimation, some projections with a UNAIDS software called Spectrum that shows that the incidence has actually decreased in the past five years, incidence meaning the proportion of the population that are new cases.”
In terms of distribution, women continue to be tested more than men, but the report also shows that in spite of feminization fears, men continue to show higher rates of new infections. When it came to access to anti-retrovirals, at the end of 2007, five hundred and fifty-eight patients were on medication out of a possible one thousand one hundred and fifty-one, representing forty-eight point five percent.
The brightest star in the HIV response so far is the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission program which continues to enjoy a high rate of success with eighty-eight percent of pregnant women getting tested over the five year period and just as high rates of testing and medication to babies.
At today’s ceremony several persons involved in the PMTCT program since its inception were awarded for their contributions.

The purpose of the five-year profile is to provide an analysis of data collected, summarize patterns and trends of the disease, provide insight into the progress made in prevention and policy and planning implications. And while the average reader looks at the document and sees gloom and doom, those in the trenches are looking on the bright side.
Ruth Jaramillo, Executive Dir., Natl. AIDS Commission Secretariat

“While yes, the picture may seem gloomy, there’s actually a lot of positive coming out of there. In Belize the national response has demonstrated commitment because you have now access to ARVs, HIV testing, also comparatively in the region, coverage is relatively high. So that is something we should encourage and promote. Where we are weak in and need more strengthening are the support services.”
Dr. Marvin Mazanero

“It tells us that we need to work. As Ethan mentioned in his conclusion, one of the things we are seeing is that we are trying to catch up to the epidemic. We still haven’t gotten there and that’s why we think the numbers look kind of bleak. I also highlighted, I don’t think we’re running out of time. I think we still have time if we do adequate planning based on the statistics that we have to meet our targets, which is to start to reduce incidence of HIV by 2015.”
Ruth Jaramillo

“This was an important step, the fact that we have new information, more up to date information, it’s critical. This will open the eyes of many of us or partners who are engaged in the response, as I mentioned before, to rethink the strategies. But there have been also a lot of successes I think that also has to be stressed.”
At the end of the conference, several attendees commemorated World AIDS Day by taking an HIV test. Kendra Griffith reporting for News Five

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