Honorable Minister Norton;
Dr. Martin Odiit from UNAIDS;
Thank you for inviting me and the American Embassy community to this important walk commemorating World AIDS Day.
As you know, I recently arrived in Guyana, and despite the 14 months that I spent learning all I could about the country, I have still been repeatedly impressed by the dedication, commitment, and spirit of national unity that permeates this country’s efforts to solve national problems. Today’s walk is yet another reflection of that unity and commitment.
You all agreed to arrive at 6 am for a three-mile walk on a weekend! If that is not commitment to a cause after a long week, I don’t know what is!
Humor aside, my point is that there is power when people unite to promote a common cause like this one. Stopping the transmission and spread of HIV/AIDS will require each one of us. If we get it right, and we will, Guyana will see financial, economic and social gains.
Ending the HIV epidemic globally, but specifically for Guyana, as a part of sustainable development is within reach. However, it will take all of us here today. We must remain vigilant and continue our commitment towards sustainable HIV epidemic control. I know HIV/AIDS is one of many health issues confronting Guyana. I know Minister Norton and his team have to address all of them. But focusing on HIV doesn’t mean everything else is ignored. Rather, our partnership to achieve sustainable epidemic control in the HIV/AIDS realm has benefits for broader health programs and systems.
Already the investments that we have jointly made in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic have established a National Reference Laboratory that is critical to control of all diseases. It has established a safe national blood supply that is critical to surgical interventions throughout the health system. It has created protocols to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis among patients at hospitals and clinics. It has established public health outreach and surveillance systems that are used not only in the tracking and prevention of HIV/AIDS but also other infectious diseases. And, yes, it has established the national drug warehouse and distribution system that is critical to ensuring the availability of medicines and supplies across the national health system.
As we commemorate this 28th annual World AIDS Day, for the first time in the history of the disease, the number of people who have been given access to lifesaving HIV treatment has exceeded the number of people becoming newly infected. We are at the tipping point. The world is finally getting ahead of this devastating disease and an HIV/AIDS free generation has become an achievable goal!
In the decade since the United States of America and Guyana began our joint efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic, HIV prevalence has reduced by 42% and AIDS related deaths have decreased by 37%. These are noteworthy achievements, but with sustainable epidemic control within our reach, it is time to fast track the AIDS response. The time to act is now. Just like today’s walk, we need collective action. To achieve zero new infections and the UNAIDS 90-90-90 goals, we need strong collaboration with government leadership, civil society, the private sector, and the international community.
Through mutual accountability and transparency, we can achieve true public health impact. Our disease prevention programs must be science based and up-to-date with international standards. We need quality data and strategic information to plan effective programs to maximize resources – financial and human. The workforce needs eager, bright minds that are solutions-driven. I know the University of Guyana just had its 49th convocation, well, every single one of those graduates have a skillset that will get Guyana one step closer to achieving sustainable development goals and the end of HIV and other public health threats.
While adequate financing is important, fast tracking the HIV response is not just about money but also about policy changes that address barriers to HIV prevention and health promotion. The bottom line is this – social barriers like stigma, discrimination, gender based violence and intolerance as well as punitive laws against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities impede progress. Laws criminalizing same-sex relations and cross-dressing must be repealed and laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity must be adopted, if we are to continue to make progress. To ensure healthy lives and to promote well-being for all, every Guyanese citizen irrespective of ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual identity or orientation should have access to quality health care and services, not to mention employment. If we want Zero new HIV infections for an AIDS-free generation, then we have to act right now. Policies have to support the process of getting to sustained HIV epidemic control. The end of HIV/AIDS as a public health threat, in Guyana, is within our reach.
Finally, I want to take a second to honor all of you who work tirelessly to address HIV and health – you have a hard job! I also want to honor those who have lost their lives to AIDS, those who are living with HIV/AIDS and face stigma and discrimination every single day. I want to honor caregivers, families, and friends who support people living with HIV/AIDS and this cause. The end of HIV/AIDS is truly within our reach if we act now.