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NAC raises concerns over increased HIV infection rates

As the world tackles the Covid-19 pandemic there are still other battles to be waged including HIV/AIDS.  One year ago Belize was ranked as being the 9th hіghеѕt country іn thе Саrіbbеаn іn tеrmѕ оf іnfесtіоnѕ.  Fast forward today and Belize remains in the top ten with an estimated five thousand persons living with HIV/AIDS in Belize.  This is the figure provided to us by the Executive Director for the National Aids Commission, Enrique Romero, as Belize joins the world in observing World AIDS Day.

Enrique Romero, Executive Director, National AIDS Commission: “Of the five thousand that is estimated data is showing us that only fifty percent, some two thousand five hundred have been diagnosed and know their status. That’s alarming because if two thousand five hundred know their status it means that there’s another two thousand five hundred persons out on the streets living in our country that have not been diagnosed, that have not been tested and do not know their status and that is like I said very alarming. When we go now to the second pillar which is treatment and care and retention because that’s our goal also not only to bring people into care but also retain them in care, to keep them in care. So of the two thousand five hundred persons that know their status there’s a fifty percent of them that are being retained in care and again the numbers are very alarming because we can say that on thousand two hundred and fifty persons are in care, are being followed up with care but also there’s another one thousand two hundred and fifty person that have already been diagnosed that are not on treatment. For the past five to six years on an annual basis we have two hundred and fifty new infections and that’s not acceptable, that’s unacceptable in today’s day and age that every year for the past five-six years we have two hundred and fifty new cases of HIV. The statistics are also showing us that on an annual basis we have been having one hundred and ten people dying from AIDS on an annual basis to when yo look at the raw numbers, because it may not coincide in the same year, but when you look at the raw numbers two fifty new cases and one hundred and ten dying in a year we can safely say that fifty percent of the persons that are newly diagnosed will die from AIDS and like I said that’s extremely high for a country like Belize.”

Romero says those who have tested positive for HIV/AIDS are more fearful amid the Covid-19 pandemic as they would be in the more vulnerable population.  It is out of this fear that the Ministry of Health has installed new measures to mitigate the risks of those living with HIV/AIDS.

Enrique Romero, Executive Director, National AIDS Commission: “The Ministry of Health’s policy and the Ministry of Health is one of our biggest partners in the national response, their policy when it comes to dispensing of medications the antiretroviral medications is that it’s done on a monthly basis. So given the COVID crisis some clients, some patients have reached out to us and said look we don’t want to be exposed, we don’t want to be going to the heath facilities every month to pick up medication because we might also pick up something else you know. So what we did was reach out to Ministry of Health officials in Belmopan and through the communication with them they agreed that in certain cases the medication could be dispensed for three months to avoid the exposure of persons with HIV having to go to health facilities to pick up every month. So that’s something that has worked greatly and tremendously and we’re very appreciative to the Ministry of Health for taking those considerations. What we have done also is that most of the testing for example is done at the public health facilities and you know nowadays people for whatever ailments you have the last thing you want to do is go to a health care facility because of the risk of getting COVID or other infections at the health facilities. So what we have been doing is working closely with our civil society organization partners and we have our civil society who have been trained, who have had capacity development in conducting HIV testing so what they have been doing is they have been providing out reach activities. And again there’s always the good side to bad things so the good side to COVID is that it has allowed some of our civil society organizations to use different modalities to be able to reach hard to reach populations.; Whatsapp, you know you have Zoom, you have Teams, you have other technological modalities that can be used to reach key and vulnerable populations that on a normal basis would be difficult to reach.”

While the sources of both the coronavirus and HIV are very much different Romero says that the stigmatization is pretty much the same; something the National AIDS Commission has been advocating against.

Enrique Romero, Executive Director, National AIDS Commission: “This COVID-19 is no different from HIV. COVID-19 has taught us many lessons. COVID-19 has demonstrated many things that were similar to HIV and AIDS you know the whole issue of stigma and discrimination you see it on social media how people can be very discriminatory against persons who they maybe suspect have COVID- it’s no different from HIV the discrimination is real, the stigma is real. The groups that are vulnerable continue to be vulnerable in HIV, are at higher risk of vulnerability in COVID. Men who have sex with men, transgender women, sex workers, young people and the fear of accessing health services that is what drives them more into depression, into fear of seeking healthcare services and that is what is driving the HIV epidemic and that is what will also continue to drive the COVID-19 pandemic; fear, ignorance in terms of not knowing facts versus myths, you hear all kinds of things about COVID- like I said many many similarities between COVID-19 and HIV.”

Annually on December 1 organizations locally and internationally host events in an attempt to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS in an effort to educate and mitigate stigmatization.  This year’s theme for World AIDS Day is, “Global Solidarity, Shared Responsibility”.