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New strategy to fight Aids.

Byline: Mandeep Singh and MOHAMMED AL GARF

BAHRAIN yesterday pledged an all-out campaign to combat Aids, under a scheme backed by the UN. The pledge came at the formal launch of a four-year strategy, at a celebration marking 20 years since the setting up of the National Aids Prevention Committee.

Bahrain's National HIV-Aids Strategy, launched at the Gulf Hotel's Gulf International Convention Centre, is the first of its kind in the region, said Health Minister Dr Faisal Al Hamer.

The 2008-2012 strategy began last year, but yesterday marked its official launch, held to coincide with the anniversary celebration.

"Today's celebration does not mark the end of this initiative but rather its beginning," said Dr Al Hamer.

"This has been going on for years now and we want efforts and work to continue on every level from all entities."

Dr Al Hamer said the strategy was of great importance to every individual in the country.

The event was organised by the committee and the Health Ministry, in co-operation with the United Nations Develop-ment Programme (UNDP).

UNDP resident represen-tative Syed Aqa said it was to Bahrain's credit that such a programme had been launched even before other nations were considering it.

"This problem is a challenge that is setting back much developmental work all over the world," he said.

Some people question why there is so much focus on this issue in Bahrain, where the numbers are not too high, said Dr Aqa.

"This is called pro-active leadership. You cannot wait until many people start dying to do something," he said.

Mr Aqa said the strategy involved different ministries working together in developing the capacity to prevent the prevalence of Aids and to care for those infected.

It is unfortunate there still exists a social stigma that stops people from coming forward to get tested and treated, said Mr Aqa.

"The good thing is that religious scholars have helped improve this image."

Committee head Dr Somaya Al Jowder said HIV-Aids was 100 per cent preventable if people were aware.

Committee deputy head Dr Fatima Al Hefny said she hoped the committee would continue to work with the concerned groups.

The first incidence of an Aids in Bahrain was reported in 1986.

"The total number registered cases at the end of last year were 160, which included 25 women," she said. A total of 120 patients have died, while 40 are alive and get treatment and support."

A total of 101 people from all sectors including doctors, previous and current committee members and representatives from the UN, ministries, media, educational institutions and companies were honoured.

Dr Al Hamer, Mr Aqa and Dr Al Jowder were also honoured.

Dr Al Jowder said that the strategy was the result of a three-year joint co-operation between the Health Ministry and the UNDP.

It is a document developed in consultation with all stakeholders, including ministries such as health, education, social development, Goys and labour, among other organisations.

Specialised non government organisations were also engaged in the process and all local newspapers, Arabic and English, took part, she said.

Religious scholars played a positive role in guiding the framework and raising awareness, she said.

The main goals of the strategic framework are to strengthen national capacity to co-ordinate and manage the multi-sector response.

It also aims to contain it among the general and target populations at the current rate of less than one per cent.

A comprehensive programme for intravenous drug users will focus on creating a legal, political, social and public health policy environment that promotes evidence-based outreach, rehabilitation and prevention.

"Behavioural-change communication, training of medical personnel, condom distribution, advocacy of harm reduction strategy and liaison with government officials and the law enforcement authorities are components of an effective approach to the challenge," said Dr Al Jowder.

"It is expected that each ministry will establish a team," she said. This team and the members of the committees and sub-committees will need training on mainstreaming HIV-Aids."

"Focal points will need to be identified for each health centre," she said.

Factors such as gender inequality, a mobile population and barriers to accessing social services, commercial sex work and absence of voluntary counselling and testing; all create a conducive environment for the spread of HIV," said Dr Al Jowder.

She said increasingly risky patterns of behaviour compounded the situation, such as unprotected sex and intravenous drug abuse.

"More than 70pc of HIV cases have spread through sharing of syringes among drug users," said Dr Al Jowder.

She said the strategy identified that there were no community-based drug rehabilitation services and more significantly no comprehensive drug outreach programmes so far.

"Specific behaviour change or harm reduction programmes such as safe sex awareness are absent at the moment," said Dr Al Jowder.

mandeep@gdn.com.bh

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Date:Jan 15, 2009
Words:807
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