Sat | Dec 14, 2019

Mom’s struggle lights fire of HIV advocacy

Published:Monday | December 2, 2019 | 12:24 AMJason Cross/Gleaner Writer
Althea Cohen (left) breaks down beside Kemesha Gabriel as they participate in the annual candelight vigil at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church yesterday in remembrance of a friend they lost to HIV/AIDS. Yesterday was commemorated as World AIDS Day.
Althea Cohen (left) breaks down beside Kemesha Gabriel as they participate in the annual candelight vigil at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church yesterday in remembrance of a friend they lost to HIV/AIDS. Yesterday was commemorated as World AIDS Day.

Having lost her mother to AIDS decades ago, 45-year-old Samantha O’Reilly*, who has been living with HIV for the past 25 years, prides herself on her advocacy work in sensitising Jamaicans that they can still have fulfilling lives after contracting the disease.

Yesterday was recognised globally as World AIDS Day, and the Jamaica Aids Support for Life (JASL), in collaboration with partner organisations, hosted an annual candlelight vigil at Carter Hall, Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church, in Kingston.

O’Reilly, who was present at the vigil, told The Gleaner that she was doing her part, alongside stakeholders, in helping to have persons who have contracted HIV be virally suppressed by 2030.

“My mom was positive before I found out about myself, so I used to help her, and then she used to go through a lot of stigma and discrimination and so on. I knew about that part of it before I found out I had it, too,” she said.

O’Reilly decided that sharing her story with survivors would help others overcome stigma. She understands how devastating the disease can be if left untreated, having seen her mother go blind, lose her memory, and plunge into a coma all in her last month alive.

“Based on how I see people treat her and what they said about her and how they behaved with her, I decided to make a difference. I saw the impact on my mother,” she added.

After witnessing how badly her mother was ostracised, she made the bold move to become a lobbyist for HIV prevention.

But by age 20, O’Reilly, a mother of two, contracted HIV from her partner – but that didn’t dim her advocacy.

Today she is virally suppressed and has been living happily with a new partner, who is HIV-negative, for approximately 10 years now.

“There wasn’t a lot of free medication back in the days, so it was a bit hard. When I just found out, it was long after that I started taking medication, and it used to cost me $70,000 to $90,000 per month, so I had to get help from sympathisers,” the activist told The Gleaner.

JASL is celebrating 28 years of service to Jamaica.

From January 1 to October 30, the group distributed 76,445 condoms islandwide and facilitated 8,742 HIV tests. Approximately 3,250 of those were to key populations, including gay men, sex workers, and transsexuals.

* Not her real name.

jason.cross@gleanerjm.com