UNAIDS Report on HIV/AIDS in Caribbean Highlights Challenges, Next Steps
About 230,000 people in the Caribbean are living with HIV, and although last year more people received antiretroviral therapy than in 2006, coverage has not reached half of the 80% target and vulnerable populations are not receiving adequate attention, according to a progress report released recently by the UNAIDS Caribbean Regional Support Team, Inter Press Service reports. The Caribbean region has the second highest HIV prevalence after sub-Saharan Africa, and although the HIV burden has stabilized in many countries, "it has done so at a high level," UNAIDS officials said. Last year, 10,000 people were put on antiretroviral treatment in the Caribbean, but the region reported 20,000 new HIV cases during the same period. Amery Browne, Trinidad and Tobago's minister of social development, said this "shocking statistic" should motivate countries to "look at innovative ways to reach key audiences with prevention messages" and "examine what really works" for HIV prevention.
According to the report, certain at-risk populations -- such as commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men, injection drug users, young women and children -- are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. These vulnerable populations "are bearing the brunt of the epidemic and yet are not at the heart of the response," UNAIDS said in a statement. Knowledge about these vulnerable groups is "scanty," Browne said, adding that countries need to "think outside the box and make sure we involve those groups." According to the report, stigma and discrimination against HIV-positive people is "widespread" in the Caribbean and pose "a major barrier to accessing prevention, testing and treatment." Therefore, the region "has to move quickly" to address HIV/AIDS among vulnerable populations, "who do not receive the attention they need given that they carry the greater burden of the virus," according to the report.
The report notes that political will and domestic and international support for HIV/AIDS efforts have increased in the Caribbean and several countries have established HIV/AIDS commissions. In addition, joint planning and reporting systems are replacing project-oriented approaches to HIV prevention, which is a "significant development," according to the report. However, in order to "fulfill our joint responsibility" to ensure universal access to HIV services in the Caribbean by 2010, the region must meet challenges and build upon successes, the report said. The report calls for increased involvement from civil society groups "so that they can play their central role in service provision, implementation and holding partners accountable." In addition, the region will need to scale-up interventions, address stigma and discrimination, and implement legislative reform to ensure that the rights of people living with HIV are respected, according to the report. Karen Sealy, director of the UNAIDS CRST, said that "[s]trategies, prevention and treatment" for HIV "should go hand in hand" because treatment programs cannot be sustained without a reduction in HIV cases. "Too many people are still dying of AIDS in the Caribbean," she said (Richards, Inter Press Service, 12/10).