ACQUIRED Immune Deficiency Syndrome – better known as AIDS – is the final stage of HIV disease, which causes severe damage to the immune system, resulting in death. This advent of AIDS is pivotal not only in its pandemic ability to wipe out over 33 million people worldwide, but also the change in social dialogue that it forced on the world.
AIDS, sadly, became the great equaliser in the world, between heterosexuals and homosexuals, between the rich and the poor, between socially open and traditional societies; they all had to face the scourge.
Official statistics estimate that around 3,000 people in Sri Lankan are HIV infected, but critics argue that this number is dangerously underrated and ignores the multitude of ways that the virus can be spread unknown to authorities.
One aspect is that Sri Lanka has a migrant population of over one million workers with nearly 80 per cent employed as housemaids. Undoubtedly, this increases the vulnerability of women and the likelihood of HIV spreading in rural areas due to inadequate awareness.
The other is that the number of HIV positive women is growing in Sri Lanka. HIV/AIDS was first identified in Sri Lanka in 1987 with a total of 1,429 victims to date. The number of reported cases in 2011 was 114 with eight deaths, according to the Health Ministry, putting the total number that died at 246.
Even though more males get infected, since 2000 the number of women is growing, creating more concern over welfare and social issues. Government numbers have jumped from 80 (1995-1999) to 137 (2000-2004) and 238 (2005-2009). Most of these are in the 20-49 age groups for both genders, creating concern over the socioeconomic impact.
Sexual transmission is the highest with 55.7 per cent being infected in this way while homosexual or bisexual relationships account for 7.6 per cent. Mother to child transmission is 3.6 per cent with contaminated needles and blood transfusions are at 0.6 per cent and 0.3 per cent respectively.
The highly-urbanised Western Province, which contains the commercial heart of the island nation, accounts for 57.2 per cent or 753 of victims while the Provinces of North-Western (8.1 per cent or 110), Central (102 or 7.7 percent) and Southern (76 or 5.8 percent) top the table.
Interestingly the North and East Provinces, where the bloody conflict raged for nearly three decades before ending in 2009, sit midway on the vulnerability list, with 53 HIV positive people identified in the former and 44 in the latter. The close proximity of Sri Lanka to India, which has an estimated 1.5 million HIV carriers, and high mobility of soldiers and refugees have been highlighted by development organisations such as the World Bank as points for caution.
Sri Lanka needs to understand that protecting its culture should not be done at the expense of marginalising HIV positive people. The fact that Sri Lanka’s status is “very low prevalence” is no excuse for complacency. Moreover, AIDS should not be used as a source of income for organisations and those actively putting up programmes to commemorate today must also be equally zealous in providing tangible support to HIV victims without limiting themselves to mere speeches and reports.
HIV discrimination at all levels, including domestic, workplace and public, needs to stop and taking a stronger stance to let these people live as equal members of society should be the pledge on this day.