HIV/AIDS is a disease with stigma. And we have learned with experience, not just with HIV/AIDS but with other diseases, countries for many reasons are sometimes hesitant to admit they have a problem. – Margaret Chan
It has been more than three decades since the HIV virus was first identified by the scientific community, however, in spite of the advances in medicine, stigma and discrimination continue to be major barriers in accessing treatment and services for those affected and impacted. World AIDS Day is observed on December 1 each year. The United Nations endorsed day provides an opportunity to show support for people living with HIV, as well as, to raise awareness of the struggles and prejudice those with the virus face daily.
According to UNAIDS more than 35 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses. It is estimated that more than 36 million people are living with HIV. Sadly, a significant number of people living with HIV remain without antiretroviral therapy, including sex workers, young people, women and girls, transgender people, men who have sex with other men, people who use drugs and other key populations within the wider society. UNAIDS expects that US $26.2 billion will be required for AIDS response in 2020. However, we need a cultural change in as much as we need to find additional financial resources in the fight against preventing HIV/AIDS. Many of the barriers those living with HIV face are rooted in patriarchy and cultural biases which render women powerless and voiceless in their sexual relations. Disturbingly, in many situations adolescent girls’ right to privacy and control over their body is not respected as a significant number of them report that their first sexual experience was forced. According to the United Nations, of the 250, 000 new HIV infections cases in 2013, more than two-thirds were adolescent girls. This shows how vulnerable females are regarding contracting HIV.
A major study examining how antiretrovirals (ARV’s) reduce the risk of HIV transmission among heterosexuals has found that no participant with a fully suppressed viral load infected his or her long-term HIV negative partner. These final results from the HPTN 052 study of 1,763 mixed HIV status heterosexual couples were presented at the Eighth International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2015. According to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases the study now makes it clear that when an HIV infected person takes antiretroviral therapy that keeps the virus suppressed, the treatment is highly effective at preventing sexual transmission of HIV to an uninfected heterosexual partner.
The time has come for the international community in general and Jamaica specifically to do more to close the HIV prevention gap which disproportionately affects lower and middle income countries more due to budgetary constraints. Unfortunately, more than 2 million are infected with HIV yearly. The international community should be mindful that now is not the time to easy off the pedal regarding HIV prevention campaigns. We have seen a resurgence of HIV in key populations and this should be taken as wake up call to action. According to a recent report by Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL) there is very little knowledge about the HIV prevalence among transgender women in Jamaica. However, the National HIV/STI programme estimates HIV prevalence rate of 0.4 and 0.5 per cent in adolescent boys and girls between ages 15-19 years. According to the United Nations as of 2013, 2.1 million adolescents were living with HIV. It cannot be business as per usual. It bears thought that given Jamaica’s strong Judea Christian custom many parents will without hesitation put out their transgendered children. Undoubtedly, these ‘trans’ individuals will be more at risk as they navigate the rough and challenging public space in an effort make a living. It is not uncommon for social issues such as homelessness, sexual abuse and depression to be high among this key population of any society making them more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.
There needs to be more intervention programmes between the Ministries of Health and Education, Youth and Information to address adolescent pregnancies and the reproductive health of teenagers. The society was outraged recently at the news that twenty (20) girls in 2 years from Kellits High School in Clarendon have dropped out of school due pregnancy. According to the news economic hardship was forcing many of these school girls into teenage pregnancy. This is a dangerous trend and has the potential to expose the girls to HIV/AIDS. While the society has made much positive strides in the attitude of health care workers towards those living with HIV, more needs to be done to remove the remaining discrimination which is still meted out to some persons living with the virus. Governments and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) must remain vigilant so as not to lose out on the gains made in tacking HIV/AIDS. Interestingly, the Caribbean region through Cuba is the first country to eliminate transmission of HIV from mother to baby. While is it true that we cannot legislate human sexual behavior we can in fact and must encourage a sense of sexual responsibility among the sexually active members within the society. We all know someone who has died from AIDS-related illness or who is currently inflicted by the virus. The international community should be attentive with regards to the sustainable development goal (SDG’s) #3 which speaks about ensuring healthy lives and the promotion of well-being for all at all ages. Any society which is serious about sustainable development must also demonstrate this by implementing and providing a comprehensive health care programme to ensure their citizenry remains in good health. As a society we should not give into our personal fears which in most instances emerge as a result of our biases and lack of knowledge. We need to work assiduously to foster and engender a culture of zero-discrimination and care towards those who are impacted with HIV/AIDS, as well as strive towards empowering such individuals in their endeavours. Let us also continue in educating the public so that the many myths about HIV/AIDS can be dispelled. On this World AIDS Day show your support by wearing a red ribbon which is the universal symbol of awareness and support for those living with HIV.
In the words of Michel Sidibe, “now is the time to come together again and finish what we started. Let us seize this opportunity and join the fast track towards ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030”.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.