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Fuad: T&T closer to zero new AIDS cases

Infections decline by 25 per cent, says minister

By Aabida Allaham aabida.allaham@triniddaexpress.com

HEALTH Minister Dr Fuad Khan says this country is closer to its goal of zero HIV/AIDS infections than ever before.

Speaking at a media conference to launch World Aids Day at the ministry's head office in Port of Spain yesterday, Khan said while there was an average of 20,000 people living with the virus in Trinidad and Tobago, the rate of infection was steadily declining.

"Already, we have seen a reduction in the number of cases, from over 1,400 new cases recorded in 2008 to 1,077 cases recorded in 2011. This represents a 25 per cent decline in new diagnosis and brings our average down to three new cases per day," he said.

This year's theme for World Aids Day, which builds on the 2011 theme, is "Zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths, zero discrimination". The ministry, however, has adopted the theme "Countdown to Zero" as they intensify national efforts to reduce HIV incidences.

"The goal is to decrease the 2008 rate of infection by the year 2015 by 50 per cent. In 2008, four new cases were diagnosed every day; by 2015, we aim to reduce that figure to two new cases a day," Khan said.

Trinidad and Tobago, unlike many countries around the world, provides free access to antiretrovirals for people living with HIV and spends "quite a lot" to do so, according to Khan.

However, while the access has helped reduce the number of AIDS-related deaths and the incidence of transmission from mother to child, Khan admits it is not enough.

He said discrimination and stigma still played a major role in limiting how far antiretrovirals could reach.

"Discrimination against persons living with or affected by HIV/AIDS is a very sensitive topic and is being addressed through strong policies that were launched since October 2011. These policies are the health sector workplace HIV policy and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV policy," he said.

The United Nations is meanwhile praising the efforts made by this country in its attempt to reach zero HIV/AIDS infections.

In a telephone interview yesterday, UNAIDS Caribbean Regional Support Team director Dr Ernest Massiah said, "I think it's an achievement; it means something is working".

Ahead of World AIDS Day, UNAIDS launched its 2012 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic.

According to the report, the Caribbean was the only region that has approached levels of treatment coverage to prevent mother-to-child transmission that are comparable to those in high-income countries.

Additionally, the Caribbean had the sharpest decline in the number of people acquiring HIV infection since 2001 and the highest decline in AIDS-related deaths in any region between 2005 and 2011.

However, Massiah said while all those figures represent a "big shift" for the Caribbean, and Trinidad and Tobago by extension, a look behind the numbers will reveal that "two populations" are not represented.

Namely, "men who have sex with men and sex workers" he said.

These people, he said, may not come in to be tested because they are afraid of being stigmatised or "not treated with dignity, and that is what needs to be removed".

He said these people, and many others who are afraid to get tested, are responding to a stigma that is "encoded in our laws, our attitudes and the statements people make".

"If they don't feel like they are going to be treated with dignity and respect", then they won't get tested and, therefore, cannot be counted, he said.

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