SRI LANKA: Taboo reinforces ignorance about HIV

Photo: Dinidu de Alwis/IRIN
A national HIV/AIDS education campaign is needed, say experts
Colombo, 5 August 2010 (PlusNews) - Sri Lanka has remained relatively unscathed by the global AIDS pandemic, but for the tiny minority of people living with HIV, life is extremely hard.

"If you have AIDS, you become an immoral person overnight," said Chamara Sumanapala, a social commentator at the University of Colombo in the capital, Colombo. "People are simply not comfortable living with people who have HIV."

UNAIDS noted that HIV prevalence in Sri Lanka had gradually increased over the last 20 years and was likely to peak by 2012 and then stabilize. Current prevalence is estimated at 0.02 percent - 3,500 people were thought to be living with the virus in 2009 - and even among population groups considered high risk, HIV infection has consistently stayed below 1 percent.

David Bridger, Country Coordinator for UNAIDS in Sri Lanka, told IRIN/PlusNews that the government needed to develop an early warning system that would alert it to any sudden rise in HIV infections.

"For example, if drug users in Sri Lanka were to shift from smoking heroin to injecting, then there is potential for the rapid spread of the HI-virus and our prevention efforts would need to rapidly expand to get ahead of this," he said. "I am pleased to see that the Ministry of Health, through the National STI [sexually transmitted infection]/AIDS Control Programme, is headed well in this direction."

High-risk groups, like drug users and commercial sex workers, should also be reached with effective prevention activities. "This is a part of the response that has been overlooked, and it is also one of the most challenging parts of the response, as a number of the most at-risk groups are highly stigmatized, and this makes prevention difficult."

"Living a dead life"

Those living with HIV face daily discrimination. Sampath Gunarathna, 28, quit his job in Colombo after a positive test result in 2007. "The biggest challenge I faced after being diagnosed was the shame I felt about myself," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "I do feel [that] society looks down on me ... It is very much living a dead life; there is not much hope."

Ashanthi Samarasighne, 31, also from Colombo, said she had been ostracized by her family and separated from her six-year-old son since she was found HIV positive in 2008.

''If you have AIDS, you become an immoral person overnight. People are simply not comfortable living with people who have HIV''
"I am paying for a crime that I did not do. I have not had sex, ever, all my life, with any other man than my husband - I was loyal to him but he was not. Now I am suffering for it," she said. "My son is with my parents because people fear him getting AIDS from being around me. As a mother I suffer immensely."

Dr Chamil Jinadasa, an independent health worker in Colombo, said social stigma was one of the main barriers to the country's efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.

"People are really worried that they will be socially stigmatized among their families and friends," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "This is a major concern; [it] increases the risk of further infections."

Education needed

Although there was some awareness about HIV among urban populations, Jinadasa stressed that HIV was still a taboo subject in rural areas. "There is an understanding about HIV, and how it is sexually [transmitted], but people have very limited understanding about alternative ways it can spread - for example, they do not know that it can spread through sharing needles."

Jinadasa said Sri Lanka needed an extensive national HIV/AIDS education campaign covering all aspects of HIV infection. The country recently obtained a grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria of between US$11 million and $12 million.

Bridger of UNAIDS said the grant would be used for strengthening prevention efforts among the groups most at-risk of HIV, providing ARV treatment, and expanding HIV surveillance systems.

See also: SRI LANKA: Low HIV prevalence but high risk


Theme (s): Early Warning, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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Former sex workers in eastern Niger- raising awareness about HIV, but still not tested
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