Tue | Oct 24, 2017

Stigma, discrimination hurting fight against AIDS

Published:Saturday | June 17, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Dr. Denise Chevannes
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Stigma and discrimination continue to hinder the national drive to raise public awareness about the facts relating to HIV and AIDS more than 35 years after Jamaica officially acknowledged its first case. Detected in 1982, HIV is present in all 14 parishes, and while there has been substantial progress in getting affected persons to realise that being HIV positive is not a death sentence, public misconceptions about the realities of HIV and AIDS are putting more people at risk.

"There is a perception that HIV is a curse. As a woman, they think you might have been promiscuous, and [then] there is the perception that men who are HIV positive are also engaged in sex with men. There is also stigma and discrimination, one has to admit, on the part of some health care workers. So stigma and discrimination is what keeps many persons out of care," Dr Denise Chevannes-Vogel, executive director of the National Family Planning Board Sexual Health Agency, told The Gleaner last week.

This is particularly painful in light of the strides Jamaica has made in terms of out-patient care for persons who are HIV positive, Chevannes-Vogel explained.

Jamaica has adopted a test-and-start approach, in that once the CD4 (a test used to assess the immune system) shows it has been compromised to a certain level, only then would therapy begin.

"Now, the evidence is [that] as soon as somebody is diagnosed as being HIV positive, you link them into care and they must be retained in antiretroviral therapy. When they are retained in antiretroviral therapy, they go into what is called viral suppression, where they don't transmit the virus anymore. One can't say that there is a cure because they still have the virus, but the virus is no longer replicating and causing damage and being transmitted, and so it is possible to have persons in viral suppression, which is the ultimate goal," Chevannes-Vogel pointed out.

... Greater public interest needed

The gains made in the treatment of HIV in Jamaica are at serious risk of being undermined as affected persons continue to wilt under the glare of public pressure predicated on misinformation.

Dr Denise Chevannes-Vogel, who brought greetings at the recent public launch of findings from 'Barriers Behind Bars' - a report completed in 2016 by the CARICOM's Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP) in partnership with the Stand Up For Jamaica - appealed for greater public interest with a view to becoming more informed on the subject matter. This is particularly important in light of the country's ambitious goal to achieve the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets, she told the audience at the Knutsford Court Hotel in New Kingston.

"The goal is that by 2020, 90 per cent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status; 90 per cent of all people diagnosed with HIV will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy; 90 per cent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression. The ultimate aim is that AIDS will be eliminated as a public-health threat by 2030. This is very much in alignment with achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially those related to poverty, health, and gender inequalities, as well as our Vision 2030 mandate," Chevannes-Vogel said.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com