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ERITREA: Focus on rapid expansion of HIV/AIDS

Eritrea faces a rapid expansion of the HIV/AIDS pandemic within the next few years, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) warned on Tuesday. Dominique Mathiot, the UNAIDS Country Programme Adviser, believes the number of people infected by HIV could increase significantly.

"The trend is alarming," said Mathiot. "There are a number of reasons for concern, including the forthcoming demobilisation of 195,000 soldiers, the mass movement of people that followed the last conflict, as well as the economic vulnerability of many people."

Recent studies into HIV/AIDS in Eritrea have shown a steady increase in cases within certain sections of the population.

While figures compiled since 1997 indicate that HIV prevalence in the adult population is around 3 percent, a recent survey of the army revealed that 4.6 percent of soldiers were HIV-positive. The same study showed an HIV prevalence of 22.8 percent among female bar workers.

Since the first AIDS case in Eritrea was reported in 1988, the progress of the disease has been rapid. By 2001, more than 13,000 people had been registered as infected. About 2,500 of these cases were reported in 2001 alone.

Other statistics also demonstrate how quickly the pandemic has expanded. In 1996, AIDS was claimed to be the 10th highest cause of death in Eritrean hospitals. By last year it was the second leading cause of death among patients over five years of age.

Experts are concerned that the country's health system is unprepared for such a rapid increase. "The figures show that an increasing number of people are sick with AIDS and there is no real support structure to cope," said Mathiot. A number of small-scale schemes are being developed to offer them help. Most plan to offer home visits, food aid and nursing care for patients who cannot be accommodated in hospitals.

One project, implemented by the health ministry and the United Nations Population Fund, by way of a US $350,000 grant from the Danish Embassy, is working to improve the quality of care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS. Working through local religious groups and community organisations, the Community-Based HIV/AIDS Care and Support: Mobilising the Civil Society of Eritrea will provide volunteers, who will visit patients in their home, with basic nursing training.

Bidho, Eritrea's first association for people living with HIV/AIDS, which was set up last year, is also planning to offer similar practical help to patients and their families.

The World Food Programme, together with the health ministry's National AIDS Control Programme, will offer food aid to up to 10,000 affected families.

As part of an innovative new approach to educating people about the disease, 10 of the country's best known sporting and entertainment heroes are to participate in a television and radio campaign.

Cyclists, singers and comedians will perform in a series of short films and radio announcements to be aired within the next few weeks. Audiences will be asked to respect the "ABC of Life: Abstinence, Be faithful and wear Condoms". The films, produced by the Eritrean Social Marketing Group, are part of an ongoing government education programme, which includes nationwide poster campaigns, educational projects in schools, youth clubs and camps for internally displaced people as well as the sale of cheap condoms, which are easily available nationwide.

Awareness campaigns have also been organised for groups considered at higher risk of being infected, such as truckers and commercial sex workers.

However, cultural taboos in some parts of the country may hinder the fight against the disease. Sister Birikty, health coordinator of the National Red Cross Society in Eritrea (RCSE) said there was still considerable stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS. "We have to tell the truth about AIDS so that cultural taboos and beliefs are properly addressed," she said.

The RSCE is participating in a global HIV/AIDS campaign entitled "The Truth about AIDS. Pass it on", which was launched on Wednesday by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Working through its thousands of volunteer members across Eritrea, the RSCE plans to inform people about the disease.

"The image of the national society in Eritrea is well positioned in the community. Therefore we are especially well placed to pass on the truth about AIDS and to change the perceptions, attitudes and behavior of our community members," said Birikty.

Theme (s): Other,

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

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