Young people in Guyana, a Caribbean nation of fewer than 800,000 people, are leading a campaign in HIV and AIDS prevention. It's a question of life and death. AIDS is the primary cause of death among the young: 15- to 44-year-olds.
DR. LESLIE RAMSAMMY
HIV is a serious, serious public health problem in Guyana. Young people must know what they need to do.
Guyana's Minister of Health, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy.
DR. LESLIE RAMSAMMY
Young people are having sex. You may not want to believe that your child is doing it.
Experts agree that reaching the young early is key in curbing the spread of HIV-related illnesses and AIDS. The trick is how to connect with them? The UN Population Fund, UNFPA, together with the government, launched an information campaign in barbershops and beauty salons around Georgetown, the capital city. It's a place where young people hang out and talk freely with their stylist about any- and everything. It's also a chance for stylists to deliver AIDS prevention messages. UNFPA's Assistant Representative, Patrice Lafleur.
We're aware that we can reach thousands of young people through these specific sites. And barbershops and hairdressing salons tend to be very friendly towards their clients, whether they're adults or whether they're young people.
Barbers like Stephen and Richard are trained to answer simple HIV-related questions. They distribute literature and condoms to clients free of charge.
Now we are in a position to distribute condoms to persons, even try to get them to come to workshops with us so that they could get the information firsthand.
Young people in Guyana right now, most of them are very, very interested about HIV and AIDS and how they would go about protecting themselves.
Understanding prevention methods has led Stephen to change the way he sanitizes equipment. Now, he sterilizes his tools after using them. His efforts are paying off, bringing in new clients and boosting business. The campaign is also reaching the most vulnerable groups with life-saving information. People like Shalini, a young sex worker, who recently found out she was HIV positive. She felt weak suddenly and became suspicious. She couldn't eat or drink anything. These symptoms persisted. Shalini decided to go to the hospital for an HIV antibody test.
When I heard that, I couldn't do anything. I cried and cried and cried. I won't kill myself. I will do nothing. Just take my medication and eat the right food.
She came here, a voluntary counseling and testing site, VCT. The Guyanese government has set up 43 fixed VCT centers nationwide offering free medication and counseling to people like Shalini. Today, she's coming to pick up her medication. But she gets much more says social worker, Keith Sealey.
So, every person that receives a booklet will have six months payment inside. It is expected that they buy foodstuffs and nutritional things to keep them going.
The program is helping to reduce infection rates in Guyana. According to official data, during the last three years, infection rates have fallen nearly 10 percent among sex workers. Among gay men, the decline is even more dramatic: infections are down by one-third. Isabella, a male sex worker, is taking steps to protect himself against HIV.
I always use a condom. Always. Without a condom I don't feel comfortable. I've got to use a condom.
The only way to make sure that the rate of infection continues to decrease is making information available to all social classes and age groups. But the secret to success is reaching the young. And this very smart initiative does just that.
This report was prepared by Mary Ferreira for the United Nations.