Tuesday, June 14, 2005

HIV in Venezuela 

There was a rather disconcerting factoid given out by the Venezuelan Ministry of Health and Social Development today. They estimate that between 90,000 and 150,000 Venezuelans have HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. At the upper limit (which is probably an overestimate) this would come to about 5 HIV cases per 1,000 people. That rate of infection is neither particularly high nor low. By way of comparison there are approximately 1 million HIV infected people in the U.S. giving that country a rate of 3.4 HIV cases per 1,000.

The disconcerting part is that Ministry of Health and Social Development estimates that only 10% to 20% of people in Venezuela with HIV know they are HIV positive. This is a very low rate and very bad from a public health stand point. The 80% to 90% of people who don’t know they have the virus are much more likely to engage in high risk activities and spread the virus then people who know their HIV status.

While this doesn’t yet qualify as a public health disaster it is close. Clearly someone in the Ministry is asleep at the wheel and not doing their job. Too much first rate public work has been done in Venezuela recently to simply allow everything to be thrown away through this kind of sloppiness.

This situation clearly calls out for decisive action. Limited forms of mandatory testing need to be implemented. For example, the sex industry in Venezuela, while not on the scale of Cuba or the Dominican Republic, is large. There needs to be mandatory testing for those involved in it. Also, it may be necessary to implement post-natal testing for new mothers as is already done in some countries. Lastly, as at least half the HIV cases in Venezuela involve people who are gay or bi-sexual their needs to be expanded testing in those communities. While mandatory testing for them will clearly not be acceptable from a human rights point of view a strong educational campaign to encourage testing needs to be carried out.

This is a potential time bomb that can’t just be ignored or wished away. If not dealt with in a timely and appropriate fashion this will blow up in someone’s face.


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