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IRIN/PlusNews Examines Ritual in Guinea-Bissau Believed to Prevent Spread of HIV

February 1, 2008

IRIN/PlusNews recently examined a ritual, known as tarbessadu, performed by traditional healers in Guinea-Bissau that many people in the country believe can prevent a woman who has given birth from contracting HIV. According to IRIN/PlusNews, traditional healers use a pig, half a sack of rice, black corn and five liters of sugarcane brandy to perform tarbessadu. Some say if a pregnant woman does not go through the ritual, she will contract HIV and transmit it to her male partner.

Tarbessadu is practiced primarily by the Balanta ethnic group, which accounts for about 20% of the country's 1.4 million residents, according to Ali Hizazi of the Italian nongovernmental organization Ceu e Terra, which works with pregnant HIV-positive women. Hizazi said that rituals, such as tarbessadu, are important to the people in Guinea-Bissau because little is known about HIV. The country's HIV prevalence is about 4%, IRIN/PlusNews reports. According to a 2006 survey, one-third of people in Guinea-Bissau believe HIV/AIDS depends on the will of God.

"People don't accept AIDS as a disease, so they attribute it to something women failed to do, or did wrong, and for which they are being punished," Hizazi said, adding, "Blame is internalized because the man just doesn't accept this responsibility. He thinks that the woman's promiscuity is what has led him to be punished by God by becoming infected." The 2006 survey also found that most Guineans would end a relationship if their partner tested positive for HIV, which makes many pregnant women reluctant to be tested, according to IRIN/PlusNews.

In addition, there are only two health care facilities in the country that offer services to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission, IRIN/PlusNews reports. Paulo Mendes -- president of the National Secretariat for the Fight Against AIDS, or SNLS -- said, "It's hard for us to plan prophylactic treatment against mother-to-child transmission in a regular manner, due to the hardships we face in terms of human, financial and material resources." It also is difficult to closely monitor women and infants for up to 18 months after delivery, according to IRIN/PlusNews. Ceu e Terra was able to monitor about 800 infants between 2002 and 2006 in Guinea-Bissau, which was less than 50% of the infants born to HIV-positive women during that time period. "Many mothers either become desperate, turn to alternative medicine or simply fail to comprehend the gravity of the situation," Oscar Basisio, president of Ceu e Terra, said.

Additional data from SNLS found that 75% of the 4,124 pregnant women who received information on HIV testing during prenatal visits in the first half of last year agreed to be tested for the virus. The tests results showed that 217 of the women were HIV-positive and that 42% of their partners agreed to be tested (IRIN/PlusNews, 1/28).

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