HIV/Aids Program Manager Suzette Moses-Burton on World Aids Day

POSTED: 12/1/10 12:17 PM

Suzette Moses-Burton
St. Maarten – Live Red. Show Love. With that slogan the HIV/Aids program management team enters the fourth year of campaigning for awareness and a better understanding of the disease. Today is World Aids Day, an appropriate moment to take stock of the situation in St. Maarten with program manager Suzette Moses-Burton. “We have moved 9,000 female condoms and 30,000 male condoms, all in the last year. That is an initial indication of behavioral change.”
Started on December 1, 1988, World Aids Day is about raising money, increasing awareness, fighting prejudice and improving education. This year’s theme is Universal Access and Human Rights. The day is important for reminding people that HIV has not gone away, and that there are many things still to be done.
According to UNAIDS estimates, there are now 33.3 million people living with HIV, including 2.5 million children. During 2009 some 2.6 million people became newly infected with the virus and an estimated 1.8 million people died from Aids.
The vast majority of people with HIV and AIDS live in lower- and middle-income countries. But HIV today is a threat to men, women and children on all continents around the world.
Moses-Burton is the architect of the Red Campaign, an awareness offensive that has involved companies and their employees on a massive scale in the effort to create a better understanding in the community for people living with HIV/Aids.
The Red campaign kicked off on World Aids Day 2007 with the slogan Talk Red. A year later the slogan changed to Think Red, Do Safe, and this year the third level of the awareness campaign went under the banner Act Red, Go Test.
The campaign focused on, as Moses-Burton has said before, making the topic sexy. “We’re not selling sex; we wanted a package that makes talking about HIV/Aids appealing.”
Looking back on the first three years of the campaign, Moses-Burton must have some sense of satisfaction. “The campaign is unique, so much so that Pancap (the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV and Aids) has decided that it should be documented as a best practice – an ideal model for government HIV programs to involve the private sector.”
The Red campaign has attracted attention in the region. Moses-Burton’s native Trinidad has been pushing for years to bring her back home to run a similar campaign, but so far she has stayed the course in St. Maarten. She has provided support to Curacao that will launch its own Red Campaign, Aruba, St. Kitts and the Bahamas.
Curacao poses its own challenges, she says. “The campaign is based on the English language, but in Curacao we have to go to Papiamento, so we have to decide what to translate and how to bring the message across. People are speaking a different language, and there is more influence from the Spanish and the Latin-American culture. We want to adjust to that without losing the essence of our message.”
In St. Maarten, Moses-Burton has brought in the Caribbean Health Research Council for a mid-term evaluation of the Red Campaign and the strategic plan. “The first indications are that we have been successful in raising the level of awareness in the community and in making it easier to discuss HIV/Aids in private and in public.”
Another indication of the campaign’s effect is that the number of people who come out to test for HIV/Aids is increasing, not only among young people, but also among citizens over the age of 60. In the past year alone, the free testing days have attracted around 700 people. Next to that, an unknown number of people have gone on their own for a laboratory test.
“Breaking down barriers is in particular important,” Moses-Burton says. “In the evaluation we see that people have become more receptive to discuss it. I speak to employees in the Red companies and then I see them back on the testing days. We are on a good path for year four.”
Next year’s focus is on breaking down those barriers of stigmatization and discrimination against people living with HIV/Aids: Live Red. Show Love. While in general people have picked up the message of the Red Campaign, people living with the disease are still reluctant to tell their environment about it. “The last three years I haven’t seen a hostile attitude towards them, but the people themselves are reluctant to disclose that they are infected,” Moses-Burton says.
The Caribbean is, after sub-Saharan Africa the region with the highest infection rate in the world. Behavioral change is important to bring those numbers down, also in St. Maarten. “We see progress in that respect,” Moses-Burton says. The past one-and-a-half year we have run a condom-marketing program with the UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund – ed.). They have provided us with 10,000 female condoms and 3,600 male condoms. On top of that we purchased 50,000 male condoms. In the past year we have moved 9,000 female condoms and 30,000 male condoms. That is an initial indication for behavioral change.”
The program management team distributes the condoms free of charge via gynecologists, doctors and also to guidance counselors at schools that request them.
“What we want to see is increased condom use and a decrease in partners,” Moses-Burton says. “I have visited local pharmacies and they report increased sales, so people are not only accepting free condoms, they also go out and buy them. We are very fortunate that our pharmacies offer the full gamma of condoms that are in the market.”
The bastion of male pride still gets in the way of common sense, Moses-Burton notes. She tells the story of a man who kept telling people at a testing day that the condoms she was giving out are “chokers” – meaning that they did not fit his size. Unperturbed, the program manager ripped a condom from its wrapper, pulled it over her closed fist and dead panned: “Is your dick bigger than this?” The condom-critic shut up after Moses-Burton informed him that there are different sizes of condoms available, but that it is not helpful to use a size that is too big – it slips off.
Moses-Burton notes that both men and women are now increasingly asking for female condoms. “Women prefer them, because they give a better experience.”
The Live Red Show Love slogan the program management team reveals today focuses on reducing stigma and discrimination. “We’ll keep the other slogans alive as well,” Moses-Burton says. The Red Campaign runs itself, she adds, because the companies involved with it know what they have to do.
Other activities in the coming year are the evaluation of the strategic plan and to sets goals and challenges for the next five years. Getting the numbers with the help of the Caribbean Health Research Center is another topic high on the list of priorities.
Currently, the available numbers have to be interpreted carefully. Moses-Burton got a sneak preview of the infection rate numbers. “They are not very different from the 2006 figures we have,” she says, adding carefully, “The trend seems to indicate that we might be at a stage where we see a leveling off of the number of new infections. We might be.”
To draw any meaningful conclusions from statistics, the numbers would have to consistently decrease over a period of three to five years, Moses-Burton says. “This year we have made a concerted effort to get people to go testing. That influences the numbers, so you may see a spike. That does not necessarily mean that the situation has become worse.”
Moses-Burton says that the 700 people who visited the free testing days this year are mostly people who have never been tested before.
The program manager is comfortable with the support her work gets from the government. Prime Minister Sarah Wescot Williams is the President of the Aids steering committee, and Public Health Minister Maria Buncamper-Molanus is its Vice-President. “That indicates that the government is going to be supportive. Also, our budget for 2011 has not been cut.”
The program received for the second year in a row $150,000 in additional financial support from a European Union project. That enabled Moses-Burton to finance additional activities.
The main challenge is however the staff shortage in her department. Six weeks ago, Margje Troost started working as a project officer with Moses-Burton, who did all the work for the rest of the year on her own, with one administrative assistant. The process to appoint a communications officer and a new administrative assistant are underway.
Today is as good a day as any for the government to kick this process into high gear.

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