Fri | Dec 14, 2018

Robyn Miller | Let’s fight together to defeat HIV/AIDS

Published:Sunday | December 2, 2018 | 12:00 AMRobyn Miller

The following op-ed comes in commemoration of World AIDS Day, which is observed every year on December 1.

HIV/AIDS has come a long way since the early '80s when it first turned up on our doorsteps. Of the nearly 34,000 persons estimated to be living with HIV in Jamaica, 79 per cent know they are carrying the virus - the first step to getting treatment.

Much has changed from those early days when people living with the virus were described as "dying from AIDS" and deteriorated rapidly as new HIV infections outpaced the rate at which the response came. Since the introduction of public access to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs in 2004, Jamaica has seen a reduction of almost 60 per cent in the number of people dying from AIDS-related illnesses.

But 30 years on, and with much work behind us, HIV and AIDS are still with us and in unacceptable numbers. This tells us that we have work to do and that much more collaboration is needed in order to meet the 90-90-90 global targets.

The 90-90-90 target aims to have, by 2020, 90 per cent of all people living with HIV know their status, 90 per cent of those diagnosed receiving sustained ARV therapy, and 90 per cent of those on ARVs virally suppressed.

As of September 2018, only 11,900 PLHIV were retained on therapy and another 6,741 virally, suppressed - meaning that more than 22,000 persons estimated to be living without the virus are without treatment.

Despite the advancements made, there is a looming crisis in the area of prevention, particularly among our youth. A total of 1,364 adolescents aged 10-19 and 2,632 youth aged 20-24 are living with HIV. According to the Ministry of Health's 2017 Knowledge, Attitudes, Practices and Behaviour Survey (KAPB), transactional sex is reported among 24.5 per cent of adolescents aged 15-19 and 45.4 per cent among youths aged 20-24.

The study also shows that comprehensive knowledge of HIV (endorsement of effective prevention methods and rejection of popular myths) has decreased over the previous reporting period. More worrying is the fact that 58 per cent of adolescents reported having sex before the age of 14. Against this background, greater collaboration between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, in partnership with parents and faith-based organisations, is needed to address the glaring gaps.

 

STIGMA STILL WITH US

 

Stigma and discrimination are still with us even after tireless advocacy by Jamaica AIDS Support for Life and other organisations. This has far-reaching implications for any HIV & AIDS programme and must be addressed frontally.

The KAPB survey shows that accepting attitudes to PLHIV not only remain low, but declined significantly in 2017 when compared to 2012.

It is the responsibility of the State to protect all its citizens. To do so, reducing stigma and discrimination must become a matter of priority for any administration by removing unhelpful laws that criminalise HIV transmission, sex work, and sexual orientation or hinder access to services.

JASL calls on Jamaicans to familiarise themselves with these laws and join our lobbying efforts to have enacted appropriate and adequate anti-discrimination laws, Data Protection Act, Sexual Harassment Bill and Occupational Safety & Health Act.

Despite the work left to be done, international agencies such as Global Fund and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) have already signalled that they would be transitioning from the Caribbean. While the scope of that transition is unclear, already, Jamaica has seen reduced funding while other Caribbean countries have had their funding cut altogether. Despite the government's recent increase in domestic funding, further injection is necessary to fill the gaps left by donor organisations. HIV & AIDS must be viewed for the national crisis that it is and addressed with no less vigour by all.

HIV is not only a health issue, but a social one that spans areas such as employment, education, and youth development, and so our final appeal is for the private sector to provide much-needed resources to assist in funding the HIV response.

- Robyn Miller is project and communications coordinator at Jamaica AIDS For Life. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rmiller@jasforlife.org.