HIV/AIDS prevalence surveys six to 12 months away

LIBERIA: HIV/AIDS prevalence surveys six to 12 months away

MONROVIA, 21 Jun 2004 (PLUSNEWS) - It will be at least six months before urgently needed surveys can be carried out to make an accurate assessment of the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in post-war Liberia, according to the country's National AIDS Control Program (NACP).

"Due to the fighting over the years, we have not had an internationally acceptable standard [of data collection] to conduct a baseline survey. The best thing we could do is to put a mechanism into place, possibly within the next six to 12 months, where we could do a population-based prevalence survey," NACP head, Dr James Duworko, said on Friday.

The survey would produce Liberia’s first national figures for those living with HIV/AIDS. With a 14-year civil war raging in the West African country until last August, data collection has been patchy. From the start of 2000 to February this year, NACP has been informed of only 617 confirmed cases of HIV.

"We have four testing centres in Monrovia, but they are not enough. We need to have close to 20 centres in the city and other centres around the country," Duworko said.

Data from UNAIDS collected over various unspecified years and presented in a 2002 global report, showed eight percent of men who went for STD testing in urban areas were found to be HIV positive. Four percent of pregnant women who went for antenatal testing in urban areas were HIV positive, compared to 10 percent in rural areas.

However, experience in the wider West Africa region suggests the true figure could be much higher.

In neighbouring Sierra Leone, similarly blighted by protracted civil war, surveys carried out by the World Health Organisation at the end of ten years of fighting in 1999 found that 24 percent of about 1,000 men who applied to become candidates for cadet officer courses were HIV-positive. Among commercial sex workers the level was 60 percent and around 17 percent of pregnant women who went for ante-natal care tested HIV-positive.

To date, limited campaigns against HIV/AIDS in Liberia have focused on familiarising people with the disease, but Duworko says progress is difficult. "A lot of people here still doubt the existence of the disease and even do not want to speak about it."

This view was supported by UNAIDS, who in their 2002 report noted that almost 70 percent of Liberians were unaware that a healthy looking person could be HIV positive.

Ignorance of HIV/AIDS appears to be worse in rural areas. James King, the coordinator of Media Against AIDS, told PlusNews last week that while people in the capital, Monrovia are most likely to be aware of the disease, much more work needs to be carried out in the interior if people are to come forward for testing at all.

"People are either afraid to do testing for fear that they might attract the virus, or those who know they are affected by the disease are also afraid to come out in public because of stigmatisation," explained King.

Earlier this month, the Global Fund approved US$ 7.65 million for the fight against HIV/AIDS to be managed by the Liberia office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) over a two-year period.

Duworko said that although the funding would help, it would be not be enough to carry out the kind of widespread national campaign that Liberians urgently need.


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