Four thousand HIV infections in a population of 20 million should not be a difficult figure to manage. But experts in Sri Lanka say social customs and strict laws are hindering them from carrying out prevention and awareness campaigns among high-risk groups.
Despite impressively low national infection rates, there are signs that the spread of HIV – which can lead to AIDS – has increased among these groups, most of which face ostracism, they say.
Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean island nation, is considered a low HIV prevalence country, according to official statistics. Going by the latest data of the National AIDS Prevention Programme, there are little over 1,800 HIV infected in the country, of which the majority is male, at 1,080.
Even if undetected cases were to be factored in, the overall case load is estimated to be around 4,000, Susantha Liyanage, director of the programme, told IPS.
Liyanage, however, warned that these low figures could be hiding a much more explosive and complex situation – the risk of an epidemic within high-risk groups. “There is a very real chance that there are higher infection rates among high risk groups. We are already seeing such a trend,” he told IPS.
A similar warning came in the Sri Lanka National HIV Strategic Plan 2013-2017 released last year. “Certain socio-economic and behavioural factors noticed in the country may ignite an epidemic in the future,” it said.
Among the risk groups identified in the plan were men who have sex with men, youth aged between 15 and 25, intravenous drug users and the offspring of HIV positive parents.