Belize observes World AIDS Day

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

Photo: Enrique Romero, Exectuive Director, National AIDS Commission (NAC)

Free HIV testing – prevent HIV/AIDS; diagnose early; treatment available “free of cost”

by Charles Gladden

BELIZE CITY, Tues. Nov. 28, 2023

Belize will join the rest of the countries throughout the world in observing World AIDS Day on Friday, December 1. The theme of this year’s observance is “Let communities lead”.

“It’s a fitting theme, because our Belizean government is doing a lot in terms of ensuring that we are providing our ARBs (angiotensin receptor blockers) and retroviral medication, because in some countries they are still depending on the Global Fund to purchase their retroviral medication,” said Enrique Romero, Executive Director for the National AIDS Commission (NAC).

Romero added, “We have been ever fortunate that the Government of Belize has purchased ARBs and supplied them to clients free of cost, so there is no cost for persons to get treatment. So, this is very significant. What goes unrecognized and for many instances, we undervalue the effort of civil society and communities; and this year’s theme is simply to highlight the work that civil society has been doing and continues to do. Civil society is the key to ensuring that we reach the key and vulnerable populations.”

World AIDS Day is an internationally recognized day devoted to raising and spreading awareness of the AIDS epidemic, which is caused by the spreading of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and remembering those who have lost their lives as a result of the virus.

“It’s more to observe the day and reflect on the progress that our country has made to date in terms of the fight against HIV/AIDS. It’s an opportunity for us to raise awareness of the challenges that remain to achieve the goal of ending AIDS by 2030. The challenges with stigma [and] discrimination, inequities, and so forth; and also, it is an opportunity to mobilize all stakeholders to jointly redouble our efforts, and to ensure that the success of the HIV response is at the top of the priorities in terms of the universal health coverage,” said Romero.

According to information from the World Health Organization (WHO), since HIV was first discovered in 1980, approximately 85.6 million persons have been infected with the virus, and 40.4 million have died as a result of HIV–related complications.

In Belize, the numbers are relatively small but very concerning, as data from the Ministry of Health and Wellness indicates that in 2022, an estimated 3,682 persons were living with the disease, with 157 new persons reportedly infected that year with HIV. Those numbers were also confirmed by Romero, who told Amandala that there is no accurate number for the country.

“A person with HIV is twenty times more likely to die from tuberculosis than from HIV itself, because the HIV already depletes your immune system, so when you get an infection – a cough infection, then it progresses to tuberculosis, then that is more likely to kill you than the actual HIV/AIDS. It’s important to know that, yes, you don’t have a cure for AIDS; but HIV, once correctly diagnosed at the early stages, then you have treatment,” Romero said.

During his conversation with Amandala, Romero emphasized that some persons are unwisely using Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) while engaging in risky sexual behavior as a substitute for condoms.

“PrEP is a not substitution for condoms,” he outlined. “PrEP is simply another prevention modality which is 99.9% effective when utilized in combination with a condom. We don’t want to bring across the message that this is a miracle pill, that I can have sex without a condom and not get infected. Yes, the pill will help you, but it won’t help you from getting pregnant and other STIs. So, we always try to come across the message that PrEP is to be used as part of a combination prevention approach,” he added.

Romero noted that for World AIDS Day free HIV testing will be done throughout the different municipalities across the country. Various health tests will be done by the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

In 2022, 66 persons died of HIV-related complications in Belize.