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December 2,2003

World "Age" Day

As you may know, yesterday was World AIDS Day. Globally, people were getting together to spread information, promote tolerance, raise awareness and ultimately try to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. The Caribbean region has the second highest prevelance of HIV/AIDS, second only to Sub-Saharan Africa. The World Health Organization estimates that between 1.9% and 3.1% of adults are living with the virus. Grenada, of course, is no exception in this area. There are somewhere near 300 reported cases out of a population of 100,000. The estimates of unreported or undiagnosed cases are much higher. Peace Corps has volunteers working specifically in this area, but has also asked all volunteers to do what we can in this area. One of our volunteers, Jeanette, is working with the Grenada Red Cross doing AIDS education and awareness in schools. The Red Cross is one of the few agencies doing work in this area and because their severe lack of funds and personnel, they are limited in the impact they can make. The Red Cross had planned a number of different activities and events, but Grenadians were only focused on one thing--the elections--for the last few weeks and as a result most of the events did not happen. They did however, have a "march" through St. George's that Jeanette recruited other volutneers to come to. I decided to head down to town on Monday morning to participate--not really sure what to expect. I've been here long enough now, that I've learned that's the best approach for new things--just don't expect to be able to make expectations. It ended up there were about 8 or 9 other volunteers and about 4 or 5 Grenadians that showed up to "march". A pretty sad showing for a country that is facing a major health crisis, but it's a start.
I had learned some information about HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean during my training and have picked up some more along the way. First, I know that there are a lot of misconceptions about how you get it, what it is and how it's spread (well, for that matter, there's still those problems everywhere.) Part of the problem here though is that it is most often spread through heterosexual sexual activity and the subject of sex here is quite taboo. For the most part, it is not talked about at home. Open discussions about sex and sexuality just don't happen. It is supposed to be part of the health and family life curriculum, but many of the teachers who are supposed to teach it are either just out of secondary school themselves or are parents who are unsure about how to talk to their own children about it. This leaves a big void of information that is most often filled by "information" from their peers or from movies, music and community beliefs. As a result, the subject of HIV and AIDS often gets swept under the table. Rumors and false information are spread as fast as the disease itself. A stigma then becomes associated with people who acquire HIV which leads to a hesitation to get tested, report cases, and seek treatment. The cycle continues. Not too different from what was going on a while back in the US (and remains in some parts.)
So, Jeanette handed out the signs, pinned ribbons on us and armed some of us with the small supply of literature that they had to hand out that day. We were quite a sight--about 15 people (the majority of which were white), walking through the bus station, up and down the streets and along the waterfront. Shouting things like "World AIDS Day" and "Fight the virus, not the person". More interesting to me, though, were the responses we got back. Some people would give us a thumbs up, a good job, or a thank you. Some would give us blank stares or uninterested glances. A few would shout back though. Young men shouted things like "I wear condoms" or "Are you giving away condoms?". One rastafarian met us with"AIDS was invented by a white man in a laboratory and you tell Bush and Blair to stop the fighting, get out of Iraq now!". One man getting out of his car said "The problem is that we just don't know who has it. The medical professionals know, if they would just release the list of who has it, we could just stay away from them and then stop the spread." As we continued on, I wondered to myself how many people saw us and thought that we all had it. My favorite comment of the day though, came from an older woman, probably in her 70's, in front of the post office. We were out there chanting and showing our signs to the people who drove past. She waddled up to us, dressed like she probably does manual labor to sustain herself, and said, "So, how many years it have?"
I gave her a puzzled look and said, "Pardon?"
"How many years it have?" she repeated
"How old am I?" I tried to translate.
"No, the world, how many years it have?"
I paused as I tried to comprehend what she meant and she said "You said World Age Day?"
Wow. World Age Day. I laughed to myself and tried to explain to her a little about AIDS.