March 31, 2010 / 9:47 PM / 10 years ago

INTERVIEW-Haiti quake may undo years of progress on HIV/AIDS

* Infection rate had been declining among the young

* Women and girls in camps need more protection



By Tom Pfeiffer

RABAT, March 31 (Reuters) - The earthquake that devastated Haiti in January has endangered years of progress in fighting the spread of AIDS in the Caribbean country, a senior U.N. health official said on Wednesday.

Haiti’s HIV infection rate had begun declining among young people before the quake threw its health system into chaos, demolishing clinics and depriving HIV patients of essential medicines.

Haiti has the worst rate of HIV infection in the region and halting the spread of the virus was hailed as a small victory for aid groups working closely with local communities to improve treatment and health awareness.

"Among the few indicators that were showing any progress were those for HIV," UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe told Reuters in an interview. "Haiti was almost a model in responding to HIV."

The risk of infection is growing as more than 1 million Haitians made homeless by the quake languish in temporary camps.

"Women and girls living in the camps face a major challenge and live in a kind of terror of nightfall, when rape and sexual assaults begin," Sidibe said. "It’s critical that we protect them from violence or we’ll see an increase in new infections."

More than-two thirds of Haitians living with HIV were affected by the earthquake and more than 5,000 pregnant Haitian women were HIV positive, he said.

"They need to have more protection or we will experience an increased number of babies born with HIV," said Sidibe.

He said it was too early to see the effects of the quake on HIV patients since it can take at least six months for those deprived of medication to fall sick and die.

Those who stop their treatment risked becoming resistant to the drugs.

"We need preventive measures among displaced populations including distribution of condoms and making sure information is well targeted," said Sidibe, who was visiting Morocco for an international HIV/AIDS conference.

Haiti’s rainy season is looming and some aid experts say another humanitarian disaster could be around the corner unless shelter is found quickly for hundreds of thousands of quake victims.

"The world has moved on, but the situation in Haiti is not getting better," Sidibe said. "It is even getting worse." (Editing by Andrew Dobbie)



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