AIDS in fishing communities: a serious problem, frequently overlooked
FAO teams up with experts to suggest policy fixes
3 March 2005, Rome - It was in a fishing village on the Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria in 1982 that a new and terrible disease began to affect large numbers of people in Central Africa. At the time, the illness was known only as "Slim," due to the wasting affect it had on its victims' bodies.
In the years since, the disease -- today all too familiar to us as HIV/AIDS -- has evolved into a pandemic whose impacts are felt by people from all walks of life, in communities all around the world.
Some people, however, are more at risk of contracting the disease than others. Such "high risk" groups include sex workers, long-distance truck drivers, and urban youth.
But the population among whom HIV/AIDS was first identified in epidemic form -- fisherfolk -- has until recently been overlooked, with the consequence that they have been left largely beyond the reach of prevention, treatment, and mitigation programmes.
This neglect may be having devastating consequences, says Ichiro Nomura, FAO Assistant-Director General for Fisheries.
He points out that in recent years it has become evident that fishing communities in many developing countries in Africa, South- and South-East Asia and Central America suffer from very high rates of HIV infection -- rates that can be five to ten times higher than those in the general population.
"These elevated rates of HIV prevalence and the alarming death rate from AIDS in these communities place the affected fishing communities among the so-called 'high risk groups' that merit special consideration in the fight against the disease," Mr. Nomura says.
Far-reaching side effects
The burden of dealing with HIV/AIDS puts additional stresses on fishing households, preventing them from accumulating assets with their fishing income or spending it to improve their household food security.
Beyond these immediate impacts, HIV/AIDS is also undermining entire food production systems, systems that people depend on for their food and incomes. Fishing and a whole range of economic activities associated with it -- processing, transporting, net making -- make crucial contributions to household incomes in many developing countries, boosting food security and allowing a richer, healthier diet.
And according to Benoit Horemans, Coordinator of the FAO/DFID Sustainable Fisheries Livelihood Programme in West Africa, the disease also erodes reliance on responsible fishing practices.
"For communities with very high levels of AIDS deaths, like those around Lake Victoria, fatalism can erode the commitment to long-term stewardship of fisheries resources," he explains.
These trends replicate what is occurring in the food production sectors of other rural communities ravaged by the disease, says Marcela Villarreal, FAO's focal point for HIV/AIDS.
"What has become clear is that HIV/AIDS is more than just a health problem, it is also a threat to sustainable rural development," she emphasizes.
Workshop puts spotlight on AIDS in fishing communities
Since 1988 FAO has been drawing attention to the implications that HIV/AIDS has for food and production systems in the developing world.
The Organization has developed a strategic framework for addressing the disease's repercussions on poverty, nutrition, food security and rural livelihoods, which includes a focus on fishing communities.
Working with international donor agencies like UK's DFID and Germany's GTZ, FAO is also supporting country- and sectoral studies on the disease in fisheries.
More recently, FAO has joined forces with a group of leading international experts on HIV in fishing communities to strategize on how to better carry out HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programmes among fisherfolk.
The group recently came together at FAO headquarters to discuss that challenge -- and possible solutions.
Vulnerability to HIV/AIDS in fishing communities stems from a complex set of factors, according to presentations made at the workshop. These include: the mobility of many fishers; the fact that they have access to a daily cash income in an overall context of poverty and vulnerability; the availability of commercial sex in fishing ports, and; the subcultures of risk-taking found among some fishermen.
Planning an effective response
During their discussions the group produced a policy brief aimed at providing governments, international donors, relief agencies and others with recommendations on how to better respond to AIDS in fishing communities.
One of its main recommendations: tailoring health outreach programs to match the rhythms of daily life in fishing communities. Health ministries need to improve access to testing, advice, and care facilities by adapting them to the mobility and irregular working hours in fishing communities.
"Free testing or counselling won't do much good if it is scheduled at a time when everybody is out fishing," explains Mr Horemans. "Outreach programs need to be suited to the community in order to be effective."
Their mobility also means that fisherfolk can be left out of efforts to distribute anti-retroviral therapies in the developing world, participants at the FAO workshop also noted in their brief.
These challenges are why close collaboration between health sector professionals, rural development programmes, and organizations with specific fisheries-sector knowledge are required to effectively tackle the problem, according to Mr Horemans.
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