(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Government launches first big push against AIDS

AIDS Ribbon safety pin.
Healthfirst

The government of Guinea-Bissau is launching its first big push against HIV/AIDS with the help of a US $19 million aid package from the World Bank and the Global Fund against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Health Minister Odete Costa Semedo said.

The money pledged recently by these two donors will be used to help fund a three-year strategic plan to control AIDS, she told PlusNews.

As part of the 2003-2005 plan, antiretroviral (ARV) drugs will make their debut into this small West African country of 1.3 million to improve the quality of life of people living with AIDS, Costa Semedo said.

These drugs would be distributed free to those least able to pay for them, but first local doctors would have to be trained how to use and prescribe the new medication, the health minister said.

ARV therapy has not so far been available in Guinea-Bissau, although it is available free to 2,000 people living with AIDS in neighbouring Senegal.

Costa Semedo said it was still too early to say when ARV therapy would be launched in Guinea-Bissau or how many people would benefit from government-subsidised treatment.

The three-year strategic plan to control AIDS also includes measures to increase public awareness of AIDS and promote condom use.

According to a sentinel study of pregnant women tested voluntarily in health centres, Guinea-Bissau had a four percent HIV prevalence rate in 2001.

Further studies conducted in 2003 indicated that 24,000 people in the country were infected with the type one HIV virus which eventually causes AIDS, while nearly 13,500 were infected with the more virulent type two virus.

AIDS is still very much a taboo issue in this former Portuguese colony, which is one of the poorest countries in Africa.

There is no association to support those living with the virus and no well-known personality in the country has admitted to being HIV positive.

Costa Semedo said the shame attached to having AIDS and people's unwillingness to admit to being HIV positive were major obstacles confronting the government in its attempts to contain the spread of the infection.

However, several local non-governmental organisations are already at work.

ALTERNAG runs an AIDS information centre in the capital Bissau. Ceu e Terras (Sky and Land) runs an AIDS testing centre in the city and assists pregnant women. AIFO meanwhile works with tuberculosis patients, who often have AIDS too, at a recently-opened hospital financed by the Sant Egidio religious organisation in Italy.

Health ministry officials said the government had identified traders, military personnel, pregnant women and youths aged between 18 and 25 as the population groups most vulnerable to AIDS in Guinea-Bissau.

The officials said the World Bank would contribute $7 million to Guinea-Bissau's fight against AIDS while the Global Fund would provide a total grant of nearly $12 million, of which $5.1 million would be spent directly on AIDS, $4.2 million on malaria and $2.6 million on tuberculosis.

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