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Government Gazette

Keeping HIV/AIDS under control in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO: In the 25 years since HIV/AIDS exploded into the world consciousness, Sri Lanka has been mercifully spared the ravages of the epidemic.

Since the first case of HIV was detected in this country two decades ago, 815 cases of AIDS have been documented, and the United Nations estimates 5,000 people in Sri Lanka are living with HIV.

Other parts of the world have not been so fortunate, however. Since the AIDS crisis began, a staggering 25 million people have died of the disease.

Over 40 million people are living with the AIDS virus today, including many in the United States, and 6,000 more become infected every day. Twelve million children have been orphaned by AIDS worldwide. Although these figures still shock, there is nevertheless a growing basis for hope.

Today is World AIDS Day: an opportunity to come together in a spirit of remembrance for those who have been lost to the disease, compassion for those who are suffering, and commitment to help others remain free from infection.

In 2003, the Sri Lankan Government initiated a 5-year National HIV/AIDS Prevention Project intended to curb the spread of HIV by expanding prevention programmes among vulnerable groups and the population.

The project also aims to develop and sustain political commitment to the issue, and to reduce social stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.

This year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrated his concern about this important issue by establishing and chairing a National AIDS Council, the country's highest policy-making body on the issue. Next August, Sri Lanka will host the Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.

Despite the encouraging statistics, high-risk behaviours that facilitate HIV transmission exist in Sri Lanka, making the country vulnerable to a growing epidemic.

In response, a new programme developed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will help keep Sri Lanka a low prevalence country.

Although the statistics from Sri Lanka show that less than 0.3 per cent of the population is infected with the HIV virus, a number of risk factors could easily give rise to a more serious epidemic:

* An increasing amount of commercial sex activity takes place among both men and women, frequently without the use of condoms;

* A large transient population of migrants and displaced persons live in regions with high prevalence of HIV;

* Drug use among the young is increasing; and,

* The most vulnerable segments of society still suffer from a great lack of accurate information.

By raising awareness, the 18-month USAID programme aims to reduce the incidence of new HIV/AIDS cases among high-risk populations to stem the tide of the disease before it can gain a beachhead on the island, and prevent the spread into the population. The programme will provide grants and technical assistance to local advocacy organisations.

For the programme to be successful, it must be inclusive. It will actively bring together the Government, UN agencies, and other key actors in health prevention, through the creation of a steering committee that will carry on the work beyond the life of the programme.

Such programmes dovetail with President George W. Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which is a 5-year, $15 billion, multi-faceted approach to combating the disease around the world - the largest international health initiative directed at a single disease that any nation has ever undertaken.

Sri Lanka is among 123 nations the United States is working with to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic through the support of sustainable, locally driven responses to the pandemic. With the strong backing of the U.S.

Congress and the American people, the United States now leads the world's donor nations in its level of financial commitment to the fight.

HIV/AIDS has become an unpleasant reality all over the world. It is likely to continue to affect Sri Lanka to some degree in the years to come. Through active partnership between our two governments, we can succeed in laying the foundation today for a brighter tomorrow.

On World AIDS Day, we recommit ourselves to fighting the AIDS pandemic for a healthier, more prosperous Sri Lanka

Robert O. Blake is U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

 

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