Amazonians unite to fight stigma in Brazil
04 October 2006
Stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV is commonplace in the Amazon region of Brazil. In an effort to change attitudes and increase awareness about AIDS, people living with HIV in the heart of the Amazonian territory have come together to try to encourage people to learn about the epidemic and break down AIDS-related stigma.
“In the northern region of Brazil, living with HIV is very difficult,” said Laurinha Brelaz, who has been HIV-positive for 13 years. “It is hard to get information, to show our faces and be open about our HIV status. The afro-Brazilian, native indigenous and Amazonian river people living with HIV are in constant fear of discrimination and stigma,” she explained.
Mrs. Brelaz is a member of Rede Nacional de Pessoas Vivendo com HIV/AIDS (RNP+), a Brazilian network of people living with HIV, based in São Paulo. RNP+ was created more than ten years ago and began working in the Manaus area of the Amazon State last year. The network seeks to support people living with HIV and focus on HIV prevention projects for native Amazonians.
“We want to support the Brazilian government in building public health policies. In the Amazon State, many people living with HIV are mistreated by public health staff. There are many cases of discrimination, especially towards HIV-positive women who particularly suffer prejudice. If we raise awareness about HIV in public opinion, people living with HIV will be confident enough to show their faces as part of society,” affirmed Mrs Brelaz.
According to a Brazilian Health authorities report, AIDS incidence in Amazon State increased from 3.7 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in 1994 to 15.7 in 2004. “In the Northern states the biggest challenges are related to access to health services. This is mainly due to geographical obstacles, and the need to expand the structure of health services to treat the local population. In order to strengthen the response to AIDS in the region, we need to improve health care systems, and encourage the involvement of civil society organizations,” said Mrs. Mariangela Simão, Director of the Brazilian National Programme on Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS.
The response to AIDS in the Amazon also goes beyond health issues. Recently RNP+ Amazonas mobilized civil society to participate in a Workshop for Awareness of Social Actors on HIV/AIDS sponsored by UNAIDS and ILO. “In the Amazon, there is a great opportunity to scale-up access to services for people living with HIV. A successful response cannot be achieved without the full engagement and participation of people living with HIV,” said Dr. Laurent Zessler, UNAIDS Coordinator Brazil. This partnership aims to develop actions on HIV in the workplace, including support to workers living with HIV in the Amazon region. The participants received information and material on HIV from UNAIDS, ILO, the Brazilian National Programme and various NGOs. The project also received support from local and State governments and National Trade Unions in the region.
Partnerships between domestic and international actors are becoming increasingly fundamental to working on AIDS issues in inland Brazil. Mrs. Laurinha Brelaz represents the network of people living with HIV in the UN Expanded Theme Group on AIDS. “In the beginning of the epidemic, people living with HIV used to feel very alone. Nobody knew what HIV or AIDS was. So, people living with HIV built-up this network. Today, we are known internationally,” she explained proudly. “Our goals are to fully participate in the decision making at all levels, including state and municipal health councils and AIDS commissions, in order to build health policies together, fight for a high quality public health system and restore our dignity,” she said.
The work, led by Brazilian civil society in the Amazon region, still depends on strengthening their financial sustainability. “Financial issues are still the main obstacle we need to overcome. We are receiving some resources from National and local governments, but we intend to approach international sponsors as well,” Mrs. Brelaz highlighted. When asked about plans for the future, Mrs. Brelaz answered, “In the Amazon we intend to implement the same standard of quality of life for people living with HIV as in other areas of Brazil.” Now RNP+ Amazonas are planning for the next annual meeting of people living with HIV in the region.