Keeping HIV/AIDS under control in Sri Lanka
COLOMBO: In the 25 years since HIV/AIDS exploded into the world
consciousness, Sri Lanka has been mercifully spared the ravages of the
Since the first case of HIV was detected in this country two decades
ago, 815 cases of AIDS have been documented, and the United Nations
estimates 5,000 people in Sri Lanka are living with HIV.
Other parts of the world have not been so fortunate, however. Since
the AIDS crisis began, a staggering 25 million people have died of the
Over 40 million people are living with the AIDS virus today,
including many in the United States, and 6,000 more become infected
every day. Twelve million children have been orphaned by AIDS worldwide.
Although these figures still shock, there is nevertheless a growing
basis for hope.
Today is World AIDS Day: an opportunity to come together in a spirit
of remembrance for those who have been lost to the disease, compassion
for those who are suffering, and commitment to help others remain free
In 2003, the Sri Lankan Government initiated a 5-year National
HIV/AIDS Prevention Project intended to curb the spread of HIV by
expanding prevention programmes among vulnerable groups and the
The project also aims to develop and sustain political commitment to
the issue, and to reduce social stigma and discrimination against people
living with HIV.
This year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrated his concern about
this important issue by establishing and chairing a National AIDS
Council, the country's highest policy-making body on the issue. Next
August, Sri Lanka will host the Congress on AIDS in Asia and the
Despite the encouraging statistics, high-risk behaviours that
facilitate HIV transmission exist in Sri Lanka, making the country
vulnerable to a growing epidemic.
In response, a new programme developed by the U.S. Agency for
International Development (USAID) will help keep Sri Lanka a low
Although the statistics from Sri Lanka show that less than 0.3 per
cent of the population is infected with the HIV virus, a number of risk
factors could easily give rise to a more serious epidemic:
* An increasing amount of commercial sex activity takes place among
both men and women, frequently without the use of condoms;
* A large transient population of migrants and displaced persons live
in regions with high prevalence of HIV;
* Drug use among the young is increasing; and,
* The most vulnerable segments of society still suffer from a great
lack of accurate information.
By raising awareness, the 18-month USAID programme aims to reduce the
incidence of new HIV/AIDS cases among high-risk populations to stem the
tide of the disease before it can gain a beachhead on the island, and
prevent the spread into the population. The programme will provide
grants and technical assistance to local advocacy organisations.
For the programme to be successful, it must be inclusive. It will
actively bring together the Government, UN agencies, and other key
actors in health prevention, through the creation of a steering
committee that will carry on the work beyond the life of the programme.
Such programmes dovetail with President George W. Bush's Emergency
Plan for AIDS Relief, which is a 5-year, $15 billion, multi-faceted
approach to combating the disease around the world - the largest
international health initiative directed at a single disease that any
nation has ever undertaken.
Sri Lanka is among 123 nations the United States is working with to
combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic through the support of sustainable, locally
driven responses to the pandemic. With the strong backing of the U.S.
Congress and the American people, the United States now leads the
world's donor nations in its level of financial commitment to the fight.
HIV/AIDS has become an unpleasant reality all over the world. It is
likely to continue to affect Sri Lanka to some degree in the years to
come. Through active partnership between our two governments, we can
succeed in laying the foundation today for a brighter tomorrow.
On World AIDS Day, we recommit ourselves to fighting the AIDS
pandemic for a healthier, more prosperous Sri Lanka
Robert O. Blake is U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.