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Mayor of Spanish Town, Dr. Andrew Wheatley, has urged political representatives to play a more active role in stemming the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease.
“It is time for the political representatives to take charge. The time has come for us to recognize that HIV is a socio-economic problem, requiring commitment and action from all sectors. This requires greater, more immediate and intimate involvement of political representatives at the local level,” he stated.
Mayor Wheatley, who was addressing a post-Thailand HIV/AIDS study tour press briefing at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel yesterday (April 10), credited Thailand’s success in combating the disease, to political commitment to the effort, with the country’s Prime Minister chairing the National AIDS Committee.Councillor Wheatley was part of a six-member Jamaican delegation that visited Thailand on an intensive two-week HIV/AIDS study tour between February and March of this year.
Describing the Thailand experience as an eye-opener, he said, “what became even more apparent was that government at all levels has a critical role to play in responding to the HIV/AIDS,” adding that, “at a national level, the role is primarily one of leadership, policy formulation and resource allocation and this is presently being provided primarily through the Ministry of Health”.
He noted that local government representatives were responsible for providing leadership and working hand in hand with communities to ensure sustainable social and economic development.
“Through their office, local government representatives inherently have the potential to impact positively on reversing the spread of HIV, and this comes about because of our intimate relationship with the communities that we serve. In most cases, local government representatives (councillors) are the first to hear the cries of the communities and it provides an ideal opportunity for us to reach out to these persons and give them positive support as it relates to HIV/AIDS,” he stated.
To achieve the objectives, he said that HIV must be integrated into planning and policy making at the local level because the epidemic impacted on local government and its resources, by reducing life expectancy as well as greatly increasing the need for health care and poverty assistance.
“Currently, the parish councils and their poor relief departments are unable to meet the needs, so imagine if we see this thing taking over Jamaica, where the epidemic is so great that it taxes the already depleted resources that we have. It would really be devastating,” he emphasized.
Pointing again to the Thai experience, Dr. Wheatley stressed that stopping the spread of HIV was only possible when there was committed political leadership and good governance. He said that all political representatives must rise to the challenge posed by HIV, by raising their understanding of HIV issues, especially the need for eradication of HIV/AIDS related discrimination.
Outlining specific action, Councillor Wheatley said all parish councillors could help to reverse the spread of the disease, by providing visible and vocal political and public leadership advocacy.
This move, he said, required councillors to collaborate with the Health Ministry to conduct local versions of the national response, making HIV/AIDS a core issue in all development decision-making.
For its part he said, the St. Catherine Parish Council would intensify existing HIV/AIDS outreach programme in the parish geared toward building awareness among high school students and other vulnerable groups; and mobilize and support existing community responses by involving them in decisions and processes. He suggested that each parish council establish an HIV/AIDS working group, while at the same time work with civic, private and other public sector organisations involved in the HIV response, to prioritize the issue as an ongoing one.
Further, Dr. Wheatley said, the St. Catherine Parish Council would continue to work with groups such as the Parish AIDS Committee and other community groups and non-governmental groups (NGO) to widen the discussion and involve all sectors in the decision-making process.
The aim of the study tour was to allow the participants to observe and learn from a variety of approaches, the programmes and interventions that have been used in that country to reduce HIV prevalence, as well as to deal with HIV/AIDS -related stigma and discrimination. The other five members of the delegation were: Executive Director of the Tourism Product Development Company, Michael Muirhead; Chairman of the Lasco Group of Companies, Lascelles Chin; Director of Occupational Health and Safety in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Neville Moody; Advocacy Officer of the National AIDS Committee, Vivian Gray; and Behaviour Change Communicator Officer for the National HIV/STI Prevention Programme, Novia Condell.
In Thailand, the government’s determination to enforce 100 per cent condom use in brothels and to ensure wide access to HIV prevention campaigns through schools, the mass media, and the workplace, have been key factors in lowering HIV infection rates.
According to the World Health Organisation, from the early 1990s, the government worked in collaboration with brothel owners to ensure that the commercial sex industry did not become the main route for a nationwide epidemic of HIV/AIDS. As a result, Thai men are today, far less likely to visit sex workers, WHO reports, and those who do, were more likely to use condoms. Meanwhile, condom use has also increased among young people and in the general population.
Each key government ministry developed its own AIDS plan and budget and government funding for HIV/AIDS was stepped up. The government forged partnerships with NGOs, the business community, people living with AIDS, religious leaders, and community leaders, engaging them in dialogue and resource mobilization for HIV prevention and care programmes.
The total number of reported AIDS cases in Jamaica between January 1982 and June 2005 is 9,682. Four hundred and seventy three were reported between January and June 2005 compared to 578 reported cases during the first six months of 2004.