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UN Calls for Action to Prevent Spread of HIV/AIDS in Haiti

A United Nations agency is calling for action to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus in earthquake-stricken Haiti. A study by UNAIDS warns of a substantial risk of the spread of the deadly virus in overcrowded camps for Haitian survivors of the disaster.

Before the devastating earthquake struck in mid-January, Haiti was the Caribbean country most severely affected by HIV/AIDS. A study by UNAIDS warns an already terrible situation could get worse because of the chaotic conditions in the country.

The Director of Technical and Country support at UNAIDS, Tim Martineau, says this is the first really significant natural disaster in a country with a high HIV epidemic. And that, he says, poses new and significant challenges.

"We estimate that there were 120,000 people living with HIV in Haiti," said Martineau. "At the end of last year, there were roughly about 19,000 people receiving treatment with a significant curve. An important concern obviously is for us to maintain treatment for that population group. But, we also anticipate that that figure will rise to about 32,000 this year. So, there is a need to maintain services, but also to scale them up."

The UN agency notes AIDS in Haiti is mainly transmitted through sexual relations. Latest estimates show 53 percent of those infected with HIV are women.

It reports serious earthquake damage occurred in three areas where 60 percent of the HIV-infected population lives. Some of the structures destroyed or damaged, it says, provided necessary services for this population.

Martineau says it is critical to re-establish the networks and civil society groups that used to provide treatment to people with HIV. He says currently an estimated 40 percent of those living with the virus no longer are accessing these vital services.

"We have a concern around the displaced population groups. The risk of violence, and particularly sexual violence and violence against women, poses a great problem and challenge in terms of the risk of HIV transmission. And, there is also roughly one million people living in camps. And, with the high HIV prevalence, the risk of the spread of HIV is quite substantial," said Martineau.

UNAIDS had requested $130 million for HIV prevention and treatment programs in Haiti before the earthquake struck. Martineau says twice that amount will now be needed this year.

He says seven work priorities include rebuilding the health system, protecting displaced people from HIV, and rebuilding the local and national networks of people living with the virus.