Lalin’s Column: 400,000 Students on Minister’ eye lashes
The Health Minister, a dentist by profession, has spearheaded a potentially massive campaign to check the spread of HIV. That this was broadcast on First December, World AIDS Day was a significant coincidence. His aim was to subject around 300,000 students taking up their A levels and 100,000 undergraduates to compulsory HIV testing.
The net would then spread to include O level students and even ‘members of clubs’ whoever they are. If he does so, a washing of spears will surely follow. His leading the charge of the needle pricking brigade has drawn no comments from either the medical or education fraternity.
Whether this is ominous or humourous only time and they will tell. However ‘Rights Activists’ have protested mainly because it is to be ‘compulsory’ testing. The concerned authorities in this fortunate nation have a well educated and shrewd citizenry with decades of near total literacy. They have with much success contained the HIV menace with non coercive treatment and community based projects. Compulsion as in less fortunate and literate and superstitious lands is unwarranted. If however compulsion is attempted, could incarceration for objectors possibly be considered the next step?
What or who gave the voluble if also arrogant Minister the power or the right to order anyone to be compulsorily pricked with a needle even if it is with the very commendable objective to eliminate AIDS? Can the blood of anyone be taken for any purpose whatsoever without the consent of the person concerned? Will this not be a gross violation of law, justice, ethics and fundamental rights in the absence of overriding health issues that affect national security? Maybe the Minster should also consult a legal beagle quickly before he charges to total disaster in the wrong direction as did the Light Brigade at Balaclava.
What will this Minster do if students and undergrads, that may, must have and will have done so voluntarily, refuse to take the test if it is made ‘compulsory’? Will the defiant be punished by being deprived of the free education guaranteed them? Will their parents, 800,000 each year, accept this? Will undergrads and students in fee levying private institutions taking foreign exams be exempted? If so why?
What will the Minister do if the doctors’ revolt and the nurses refuse to take blood from unwilling youth? Will they lose their jobs?
One must wonder whether the AIDS problem in SL has suddenly reached pandemic levels like Ebola in West Africa or even epidemic levels as in almost all African especially sub Saharan countries that may require the Minister’s drastic remedial actions. If it was so, no student, parent or other citizen would or could object. However no such alarm has been raised by the health ministry or the GMOA or the media. Who other than the Minister has any idea why he has targeted of all people the brightest students in the country who presumably know best as to what has to be done to protect themselves and society from AIDS or other afflictions? Is there a motive that is secret?
The Minister armed with statistics has said there are 2241 HIV cases in SL. Of them 48 school children are living with aids, infected by their mothers. Thirteen (13) AIDs cases were in the 15-19 age group, 7 in the 10-14 group and 71 in children under 9 years. So it is not the mothers and mothers to be but their off spring that are targeted as being vulnerable. Another spasmodic reaction is to have sex education as a compulsory subject for the GCE O level exams. Is it the education or health ministry that would be responsible for so deciding?
From the kick off itself one wonders who if any are the doctors or educationists who have advised the Minister on these extra ordinary courses of action. Would university students not be humiliated as a result? Will those in private educational institutions at this level escape or be ‘spared’? Are prolific ’Night clubs’ exempt while Sports clubs are not?
The National STD/Aids Control Programme (NSACP) and a former President of the SL College of Venereologists Mr. G Weerasinghe assure the public that SL is a low prevalence country. This means that the number affected are below 1.5% in women and 5% among high risk categories. In SL prevalence is 0.03%. In UK it is 0.19%; USA is 0.4% - 0.9%, India 0.3% and Thailand 1.1% .However South Africa’s 19.1% is below par for much of Africa. SL has had a total of 2,241 cases since the first in 1987 of which 213 have died including 26 last year and 21 up to September this year. UK has had 103,700 cases. Thailand has had 20,000 deaths in 2013.In 2005 she had 40,000 deaths. Nigeria and South Africa each has 200,000 deaths, India 130,000 deaths of 2.1 m affected with HIV .What then is the compelling emergency or impending calamity that has activated the Minister? What about dengue? Are there any such shock and awe campaigns to contain it?
Most susceptible HIV groups are sex workers, their clients, drug addicts, beach boys, prisoners, long distance truckers, 3 wheel drivers and foreign employed workers. Men having sex with men are the most vulnerable and prolific group. Orphans and old people affected need special care. What made the Minister side line them and pick on A level students? What is his fascination for them? What has he got against those who do not sit any level of exams to exempt them? Are they less, more or most vulnerable? Do they not deserve to be tested too?
NSACP has a good grip on the situation concentrating on prevention. There is also education, treatment and care. There has been for example a ‘massive response’ in Batticaloa for their campaigns. People in SL know Anti Retro Viral (ARV) treatment can prevent transmission of HIV as well as prevent it. In 2014, nearly 900,000 HIV tests were done. If the Minister’s scheme for 'A' level and university students takes off, 1.3 m people nationwide will have to be tested annually. Are the logistics for testing, including trained and experienced technicians and country wide laboratories available? Will the ongoing programme that has effectively brought AIDS under control, then suffer from Ministerial expediency?
Colombo, Gampaha and Puttalam (where a ‘rendition’ was silently done in 2003 to help the USA but not the AIDS programme) are the most affected places. Kandy and Kurunegalla contribute less significantly to the numbers. Colombo is the hub for the spread of HIV. Why shouldn’t the Minister take on Colombo first, sparing no one? Or will he persist with the Charge of the Student Picking, Pricking and Bleeding Brigade?
Will these ‘A’ Level and university students targeted aberrations alone cost over Rs. 400 m as estimated by 'Don Manu' in the Sunday Time on 13 Dec 15? Will some quick fix laboratories rake in a windfall? ‘Manu’ asks what will happen if this mass blood testing leads to some being infected due to misadventure. This often happens, has and may happen. What are the Ministry resources to face a real rather than a hallucinated emergency? Who will admit responsibility? What about the fate of the infected persons?
It would appear that other pressing health issues like the state of government hospitals, their facilities including high value drugs and medicines, general hygiene problems like filth accumulating on the streets and in the public drains, collapsing sewage and waste disposal resources, dengue, CKDu, TB, malaria and chronic malnutrition appear not to figure as prominently in the Minister’s thoughts.
While trotting out statistics that he like Sisyphus has laboured over, has he lost the wood for the trees? Did HIV originate in SL? Or, like all the horrible diseases that were ‘gifted’ by the colonizers from the West, wasn’t this too, like VD, brought from the West where ever its origins may be? No wonder the West is expected to fund this programme. Shouldn’t he therefore instead start testing all foreigners especially those from the West (fawningly called International Community) on arrival? Would diplomatic immunity apply to some? Should foreigners be prevented from entering SL if they refuse to take the Minister’s tests as they, including the Indians (2.1m HIV cases), surely will? And there is talk of building bridges and tunnels linking India with SL too.
The Minister must be aware of foreign pedophiles, almost all westerners, who haunt the beach resorts all over SL except possibly Negombo. Will his teams go into hotels (BBS will volunteer) in search of the concerned foreigners and prick needles in them? Maybe he should ask the Tourism and Finance Ministers to cooperate. Will they have fits?
Effective measures in educating, testing, treating and interventions on target groups have contributed to SL being commended by WHO in 2013.This thankfully has been so despite 26 years of severe conflict and also a largely uncircumcised population. Does the Minister know what the situation was in the ‘Killing Fields’ of Cambodia? What then is the need for the Minister’s panic?
Should the Minister not take action to find out how children under 7 years were infected and by whom, instead being carried away by labored statistics?
People may well ask why all elected representatives of the people are not tested first, just to set an example if nothing else. HIV is not a respecter of persons. Legislators provide the public with never ending spectacular tales. They should be eager to take the tests whatever their education standards be. Almost all of them have said (after the war of course) that they are willing to die for the country. Some die on the battlefield, others more comfortably. These jabs may rekindle dreams of heroism. Maybe the Seneratnes will lead the charge if it is not compulsory.
Health ministers, who suddenly sally forth with messianic glee, waving AIDS pennants and statistics to attack not windmills but imagined HIV fortresses, must be humoured. They have also to be tolerated.
This was a monumental you know what exercise. SL should not become a fascist state. No one can be forced to have his or her body interfered with, without consent especially when no pressing national emergency exists. Amazingly this is under a Yahapalanaya rule. Its credibility was questioned a long time ago. Now it is its sanity that is in doubt.
- Asian Tribune -