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Editorial | Fortify the battle lines against HIV/AIDS

Published:Friday | December 2, 2016 | 12:00 AM

LIKE MOST of the rest of the world, Jamaica has made great strides in combating HIV/AIDS since the infection was first reported here nearly three and a half decades ago. The disease is no longer an automatic death sentence.

That, in part, is the outcome science: of medical advances in treating the disease. It is also the result of a change in human attitudes and behaviour towards the disease and people who have it. There is substantially less stigma and discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS than there used to be. But Dr Myrton Smith, the president of the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ), observed in his message marking yesterday's World AIDS Day, there is still much ground to cover.

Indeed, there are some telling statistics about HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, bits of which were quoted by Dr Smith in his statement. For instance, it is estimated that around 1.6 per cent of the island's adult population is living with the disease, which is around 32,000 people. Yet, perhaps half of them are unaware of their condition. Further, while HIV/AIDS is primarily a sexually contracted disease, the latest surveys suggest that 40 per cent of women and 30 per cent of men don't regularly use condoms in their sexual encounters.

These are circumstances that contribute to the continued spread, even though at a slower rate, of the disease. But it is information that frames the message that has to be sent, and expanded, to greatly lessen, if not totally eliminate, the incidence of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.

It is a narrative that must encourage people to take ownership or responsibility for their health. That, in this case, begins with knowing their HIV status, thus establishing the framework for intervention. But we understand, too, that is not always easy. Prevalent attitudes cause a less-than-fulsome embrace of this ideal by some at-risk groups, placing them at even greater risk of infections. Men who have sex with men fall in this category.

Recent data indicate around a 30 per cent HIV prevalence among active male homosexuals, especially those with multiple sex partners. Jamaica is still largely a homophobic place, where gay men, fearing discrimination and stigma because of their sexual orientation, are likely to hide in the shadows. Female sex workers fare better, and their rate of HIV has fallen sharply in recent years. That, however, doesn't mean that they are immune from the stigma that still prevents many from taking full ownership of their health.

In the event, fighting stigma and discrimination and further advancing public understanding of the disease as one that isn't contracted by casual contact remain imperatives in the campaign against HIV/AIDS. There is, too, the issue of empowerment, especially for women, in negotiating sexual relationships.

It used to be that significantly more men than women contracted HIV. The situation has flipped, especially among younger women. Part of the reasons, perhaps, rests in the data on condom use among women, some of whom may have promiscuous partners. This argument, however, is not irrelevant to men who have sex with men.

Education and awareness, therefore, are effective weapons in the arsenal against HIV/AIDS.