Two agencies at the forefront of the nation?s battle against HIV/AIDS ? a public sector department and an NGO ? are once again collaborating to minimize spread of infection, as 2009 Carnival celebrations inch toward their anticipated grand climax.
The AIDS Secretariat in the Ministry of Health and the volunteer-based Triple-H Network announced that their personnel will be mixing with revelers and onlookers to distribute condoms and information.
Acting Programme Manager of the AIDS Secretariat, Delcora Williams, told The Daily OBSERVER the aim as usual is to discourage risky behavior, encourage restraint ? including abstinence ? and safe sex for those who choose to indulge.
?We will join the carnival parade. This year we?re having a float, and on the route making people aware that HIV is still around. We?ll also be attending some of the different shows and giving out both male and female condoms, as well as information about HIV and AIDS.?
Throughout the Caribbean, and wherever Carnival is celebrated, the annual festivities are recognized as a time when people tend to engage more than usual in risky sexual behaviour.
Discouraging this seasonal surge of festive promiscuity is not easy, given the high alcohol availability and consumption that has become an indispensable feature of ?playing mas?. Williams acknowledges this, noting that ?they always say when the rum is in the wick is out.?
But the reality is that alcohol manufacturers and traders are among the biggest, most persistent, reliable and lucrative sponsors of carnival and its associated activities. Despite the known compromising effect of booze on people?s judgment, their restraint in sex and other life-and-death activities such as driving, it is practically impossible to curtail the widespread intoxication that always seems to go hand in hand with carnival.
Williams believes that?s why it must boil down to individuals taking responsibility for themselves and controlling their drinking. In the process, she dropped what may or may not be a bombshell revelation in the Antiguan context ? that the AIDS Secretariat also receives sponsorship support from alcohol brands.
She pointed out that carnival is not the only area in which alcohol is a problem, as many road accidents in the country are drink-related. But where HIV/AIDS prevention is concerned, she says the secretariat believes more people need to accept that ?drinking impairs their ability to negotiate sex safely.?
The AIDS Secretariat and the Caribbean Alliance say they have large supplies of free male and female condoms available for those so interested, but who find cost and confidentiality to be impediments. A combination of conservatism and stigma still makes many people embarrassed to purchase condoms openly at supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations and the many other points of sale where they can be bought.
It is an issue that Nigel Willock, a volunteer with the Health Hope and HIV (or Triple-H) Network said still requires much work in terms of overcoming stigma through sustained education and awareness. Willock said it is well known that a lot of people go into shops with the intention of purchasing condoms, but leave without doing so because of fear that they will be seen.
But he also notes that this too boils down to personal responsibility and perception, suggesting that people need to decide for themselves whether what others say or think is more important than their own self-preservation.
Sir Dr Prince Ramsey ? one of Antigua & Barbuda?s most decorated medical practitioners ? is the country?s AIDS Clinical Coordinator. While societal stigma and discrimination against homosexual men is widely blamed for driving the disease underground, making it doubly difficult to prevent and treat, he?s of the view that Antigua & Barbuda has made major positive strides in that regard.
?There?s now a greater understanding that other people can get HIV and AIDS, not just homosexuals, therefore they?re more sympathetic to these people [than before].?
Dr. Ramsey also offered some valuable insight on alcohol that could prove useful to those needing to manage their consumption and its effects.
?Alcohol is a mood-dependent drug. Depending on your mood you?ll respond in a particular way. If you?re happy you?ll still stay awake. If you drink alcohol and lie down, you may go to sleep. If you go to a fete you may stay awake all night because you?re drinking. You may be talkative if you?re in groups, or you may just get quiet if you?re by yourself.?
He explained that in the ?escalating mood of carnival? people tended to become more relaxed, and problems arise when sex and uncontrolled alcohol consumption are thrown into that mix.