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TANZANIA: HIV/AIDS prevalence increasing in Zanzibar

United Nations HIV/AIDS experts believe HIV/AIDS prevalence in Zanzibar is on a steady increase, but are worried that currently available data could be underestimating the actual magnitude of the pandemic in the semi-autonomous islands.

Dr Fath Alloba, the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) specialist on HIV/AIDS in Zanzibar, told PlusNews on Thursday that Zanzibar was lagging far behind other countries in the region in developing "concrete strategic" data on HIV prevalence, a factor which was impeding concerted efforts in the overall fight against HIV/AIDS.

According to Alloba, official figures indicate an HIV prevalence of two percent. Yet other data, such as those collected recently at four voluntary testing centres, show that up to 13.7 percent of those tested were infected. Alloba also said he had been treating an increasing number of sexually transmitted infections (STI), usually linked with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

"This result may not reflect fully on the general population, but it will also tell you that the real figures are much higher than two percent," Alloba said. "As clinicians, we feel there is a real increase in HIV cases. There are a lot of indicators that make us believe that HIV prevalence is increasing."

The current official figures could, however, change dramatically after the completion of a survey to be carried out in June, according to Hilde Basstanie, the UNAIDS country programme adviser for Tanzania.

The study, to be conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in collaboration with Zanzibari authorities and other UN agencies such as the UN Development Programme (UNDP), will provide the Tanzanian government with the technical support needed to put in place HIV surveillance and standardised data collecting systems, according to Basstanie.

"At the moment, there is a lot of speculation on HIV prevalence in Zanzibar, but until we have a good strategic study, it is difficult to say anything on the prevalence rates," Basstanie told PlusNews on Friday from Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital.

The results of the study are expected sometime in June this year, according to Basstanie. "Currently, there are questions about the reliability of data. We have very poor quality data," she said.

A number of UN agencies, namely UNDP, WHO, UNAIDS, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), are also planning to launch a joint programme on HIV/AIDS for Zanzibar for between 2002 and 2006. The programme is aimed at supporting efforts by the Tanzanian government, NGOs and other local initiatives to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, and support those already affected by the pandemic, according to Basstanie.

Although basic knowledge about HIV/AIDS has increased and become generally high in Zanzibar, most local people lack adequate support to help them make informed choices on their sexual practices, according to UNICEF.

In a 2001 report entitled "Situation analysis of children in Zanzibar: 2001", UNICEF said there was a wide gap between the basic knowledge among the local people of ways to avoid contracting HIV/AIDS and the opportunities available to ensure safer sex.

While most people (94.1 percent of women and 97.6 percent of men) knew about HIV, and condoms as a key method of protection against its transmission, social acceptability was limited, with less than half stating that it was acceptable for a woman to ask a man to use a condom, it said.

"Only 0.1 percent of women and 5.2 percent of men in Zanzibar have ever used condoms to avoid STIs," the report said.

Besides unreliable data, other challenges hampering the war against HIV/AIDS in Zanzibar include constraints in funding for STI projects, which has often led to partial implementation of projects, and irregular and inadequate supply of test kits, as well as the lack of clear HIV/AIDS policies which can involve the local community, according to Alloba.

"The community has not been a problem. The community can easily be mobilised to be involved in HIV/AIDS programmes," he said.

Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews,

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

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