Monday, August 10, 2009

Use Condoms and Get Tested, Regularly

Uganda has launched a new HIV/Aids campaign, ‘Stay Negative and Love Condoms’. That’s good to hear because condoms are vital for preventing HIV. There are lots of other things that can be done but a campaign that highlights the use of condoms is certainly preferable to ones where abstinence and faithfulness are stressed and condoms hardly mentioned. It’s also good to hear that some effort is being put into preventing transmission of HIV, rather than concentrating mainly on people who are already infected. The Aids Healthcare Foundation is running the programme so I’ll be watching out for further information on it.

In addition to emphasizing abstinence and faithfulness at the expense of prevention strategies that have any chance of working, the Ugandan government hasn’t been pulling its weight in its HIV prevention efforts. Research shows that people’s sexual behaviour is not very heavily influenced by recent campaigns for safer sex. Perhaps now they will look beyond sex, at people’s livelihoods and circumstances, which determine when, where, how often and with whom people have sex. While they are at it, they could work on their attitude towards men who have sex with men (MSM).

Currently MSMs are pretty much ignored by HIV prevention campaigns and they continue to be the victims of persecution and abuse. They are a very high risk group and this abuse only makes matters worse. They need the protection of the law and access to health services. As do commercial sex workers and intravenous drug users. Criminalization and the continued refusal to engage in meaningful harm-reduction efforts for these groups are senseless and appears to be motivated by political or religious interests (if these are in any way different).

Indeed, many countries are considering some kind of law making it a crime to knowingly transmit HIV. People who are infected with HIV need to be identified by voluntary testing, not hounded and criminalized. In addition to the use of condoms, testing is a vital and effective tool in HIV prevention and care. People need to be encouraged to test, not threatened with a prison sentence if they turn out to be HIV positive. This sort of law is particularly hard on women, who are more likely to test at an earlier stage in the disease. The more people who test early and regularly, the better.

It is things like stigma, persecution, gender and economic inequalities, poor legislation and enforcement, corruption and political and religious interference that have allowed HIV to spread rapidly in many countries. These problems are, in most countries, getting worse. This is not the time to pass laws that make HIV eradication even less likely than it is at present.

Use Condoms, get tested, regularly, be careful and advocate against discriminatory and harmful laws.


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