Different Organizations Launch Aggressive Awareness for AIDS in Sri Lanka

By Sirohmi Gunesekera, Womens Feature Service

Lilani Perera (name changed), 39, exudes an air of calmness and peace. Considering that she is battling with HIV, but her tranquil exterior is commendable. She was tested positive six years back. She contracted the virus from her husband but she doesn’t blame him instead she wants to concentrate her energies on staying well for the sake of her two small children.

Perera is ready for the battle. She knows how the disease is contracted. She needs to do to keep herself and her husband well enough to combat the disease and live a full life.

Perera, a Christian, has placed her faith in God and also in Sri Lanka’s National Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS Control Program of which both organizations focus on awareness campaigns.

This change can be attributed to some aggressive awareness campaigns by the National Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS Control Program (NSTDACP). In fact, these campaigns coupled with the society’s stress on family values, has not only reigned in stigma and discrimination but contributed to keeping the prevalence low rate in Sri Lanka at 0.03 per cent in the general population.

“The prevalence of HIV-AIDS in Sri Lanka is 0.03 per cent in the general population and this is very low compared to other countries, including neighbouring India,” states Dr Shantha Hettiarachchi, Coordinator, Mass Communication and Publicity, Health Education Bureau of Sri Lanka.

Another reason Hettiarachchi felt contributed to a low prevalence rate is the high literacy rate in the country. Many Lankans read newspapers and publications. They are well aware of AIDS and its attendant risks and consequences.

“Up to the end of the second quarter of 2010 there were 1,249 reported cases of HIV, of which 743 were males and 506 were females. Of these, 316 have become full-blown AIDS cases (215 males and 101 females). From the first detected case in 1986 to 2010, there have been 212 deaths due to AIDS in Sri Lanka,” he revealed, adding, “Of the HIV infected people, 11 per cent are homosexual and 85 per cent heterosexual.”

There are 33 STD (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) clinics operational across the country which provide services free of charge. Sex education in schools is another effective tool.

Support for HIV-positive people is available in the form of LankaPlus, an organisation started by Dr .Kamalika Abeyratne, who contracted AIDS due to infected blood transfusion.

Says Sarath Pieris, Senior Field Officer of the organisation, “There are 152 HIV-positive people attached to LankaPlus and we help to spread awareness while seeing to their needs.”

Pieris is also HIV-positive. “I worked abroad and they took a routine blood test for an operation and found out my status. I lost my job overnight and was handcuffed and brought back to Sri Lanka. I was very depressed but I now work for LankaPlus. We visit hospitals and counsel sufferers and help them to bear the consequences of this situation. I am a Catholic and my faith helps sustain me,” he says.

While disease control may seem on track in Sri Lanka, there are some serious problem points, like the growing number of women who are getting infected by their husbands. In fact, according to media reports around 50 per cent of HIV infected women in Sri Lanka have contracted the disease from their husbands without their knowledge.

And then of course there is the issue of fund. Support groups like LankaPlus are now facing a money crunch making their work tougher, but they are a committed lot.

“Earlier agencies like UNAIDS, UNDP, Red Cross and Action Aid helped us with funds but now NGOs have funding problems so we are finding it difficult even to pay the salaries of our five full-time staff,” says Pieris.