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HIV/AIDS: A growing concern

By Kimoy Leon Sing

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is on the rise in Trinidad and Tobago.
UNAIDS Country Coordinator for Trinidad and Tobago, Izola Garcia, said that from 2008 to 2011 there was a steady decline in new infections and deaths annually due to AIDS. However, the number of new infections in 2012 was 1,282; an increase from the 2011 figure of 1,077.
She said, “It is estimated that 14,000 persons are presently living with HIV. Based on the 2010 Treatment Guideline, 5,565 of the estimated 7,495 persons who need treatment are receiving it. With the new treatment guideline where persons are recommended to be placed on treatment earlier, it is estimated that the number of persons who need to be placed on treatment will increase to 12,000 persons.”
She said, “AIDS is the collection of symptoms and infections brought on by damage to the immune system caused by HIV. In the later stages of AIDS persons are more susceptible to many infections and tumours.”
She noted that the Human Immunodefiency Virus (HIV) causes AIDS.
“In the body the HIV infects cells of the immune system that form the body’s defence system and makes them unable to fight off infections. The virus enters the immune system’s CD4 cells, which protect the body against various bacteria, viruses and other germs. The CD4 then makes many, copies of the virus. As the virus starts to multiply the CD4 cell count thus decreases dramatically. HIV infection takes nearly 10 years or more to manifest into full blown AIDS,” she said.
Garcia noted that this sudden increase is a cause for great concern and more work has to be done surrounding AIDS and those living with the disease.
She said, “Every day someone is having sexual intercourse and perhaps for the first time and they may not have the information needed to make sound judgment regarding safer sex. Unfortunately too, many people, young and old, experience abuse and forced sexual encounters, incest and rape, that predisposes them to infection.”
Garcia noted that the increase in the number of new infections was based on a number of factors, including persons having unprotected sex or not using protection/condoms correctly and consistently, people who are living with HIV not staying on treatment thus causing them to be infectious to their sexual partners.
An increase in multi-partnering without knowing your HIV status and that of your sexual partner and continuing to engage in unprotected sex increases your risk of infection for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), she said.
“Culturally we do not speak openly about sexual and reproductive health or sex since these topics of conversation are considered taboo,” she said.
“Compounded by a lack of trust and fear due to stigma and discrimination also prevents such open dialogue and further puts persons at risk,” she added.
“Persons who are infected also have a responsibility to practise safer sex. Each person in a sexual relationship has equal responsibility for their safety and each other’s safety and should know their HIV status, communicate this to each other and practise safe sex,” Garcia said.
World AIDS Day was observed on December 1 and the theme this year, and until 2015, is Getting to Zero - zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths, zero stigma and discrimination.
AIDS affects and continues to affect millions of people and their families worldwide. Having the mentality that it only affects “certain” people is not practical. We are all at risk of contracting HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, Garcia said.
“Anyone who has had sex, is having sex, is having unprotected sex, has been or is sexually abused, does not know their HIV status, has multiple sexual partners, is the partner of someone who has multiple partners, does not know how HIV is spread or methods to prevent HIV is at risk for HIV,” Garcia said.
“Anal sex is very risky and any person who engages in unprotected anal sex and does not know their or their partner’s HIV status or status with respect to STIs is also very much at risk,” she added.
“In order to combat this, action is needed at all levels,” Garcia said.
She noted that this includes the public and private sectors and all the way down to civil organisations and concerned individuals.
She went on further and said that proper support and education is crucial to move forward, however, we also need to build and ensure a stigma-free environment, she said.
“Many people lose their jobs or cannot get jobs because of their perceived HIV status or sexual orientation which does not dictate their ability or fitness to work. This has an impact on the lives of individuals, families and the economy, thrusting people sometimes into poverty or into illegal activity to make ends meet, which may also put them at further risk,” she said.
“The State has the responsibility for all its citizens to ensure human rights, equality and equity for all regardless of the differences of the citizenry including HIV status, differing abilities, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and socio-economic status,” Garcia said.
“The Immigration Act, Section 8, as well prohibits persons described as idiots, imbeciles, the feeble minded,
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