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Head of the HIV/AIDS Projects Coordination Unit in the Ministry of Health, Dr.Yitades Gebre has said programmes aimed at reducing stigma and discrimination were critical if the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Jamaica was to be stemmed.
Dr. Gebre said stigma and discrimination caused by a lack of understanding about HIV and AIDS was still one of the major factors affecting the HIV/AIDS response in Jamaica.
He said while this was not peculiar to Jamaica, the issue would have to be addressed further as discrimination amplified the impact of the epidemic by increasing the vulnerability of infected persons who become unwilling to access treatment, testing or prevention programmes.
“Stigma is an attitude, discrimination is behaviour, both attitude and behaviour could be reached through, education, legislation and partnership,” he told persons attending the National HIV/STI Control Programme’s official launch of its 2005 Work Place Mass Media Campaign at the Terra Nova Hotel yesterday (Thursday, August 18).
The HIV/AIDS Projects Coordination Unit Head said for the 22,000 persons living with HIV there are about 100,000 individuals who are affected by the epidemic and over 350,000 who are vulnerable to HIV infection while in 64,000 workplaces one out of four has an individual with HIV.
He said the situation was further aggravated by the practice of segregating or ill treating children in schools and patients in hospitals and refusing employment to infected persons and the denial of visas by some countries as recent as 2005.
“Stigma causes discrimination so we have to address the stigma in order to prevent discrimination as discrimination leads to the violation of the basic human rights,” Dr. Gebre pointed out. Furthermore he said, “we have to do a lot we have to normalise HIV testing. Nobody has to be afraid to do HIV testing, we have a lot to do in HIV/AIDS prevention, care and support.”
Meanwhile the HIV/AIDS Projects Coordination Unit Head reported that some 90 per cent of pregnant women were now tested under the Mother to Child Transmission Prevention Programme. He informed that for the first quarter in 2005 HIV testing was offered to 31,000 pregnant women. He said this represented good coverage as some 51,000 pregnancies are anticipated in Jamaica each year.
Mr. Gebre said for the January to March quarter some 244 AIDS cases were reported as against 306 cases during the same period last year. For this year, persons in the 20 to 39 age group account for 45 per cent of all reported cases.
He noted that while it could be said that there was a slight decrease it was still too early to tell if the epidemic on the decline.
“We are still running behind the epidemic, we have to be ahead,” he stressed. At the end of 2004 a total of 9,528 AIDS cases were reported to the Health Ministry.
Dr. Gebre said the number of persons infected by HIV through persons who were unaware of their HIV infection in each year, was approximately 3,800. While for persons who know their status there could be as many as 1,700 new HIV infections. He noted that the “more people know their HIV status the less the likelihood of HIV transmission.”
Since the first reported case of the epidemic in 1982 for each year since 1998, the number of reported cases in Jamaica has been approximately 1,000.