Looking back, looking forward | JASL providing more than 25 years of 'love, action and support'
In 1991, when friends Ian McKnight, Joseph Robinson, Michael Johnson and Howard Daly founded Jamaica AIDS Support, they could not have imagined the impact the organisation would have made more than 25 years later. The fact is, very little was known about HIV and AIDS then. The country had no clearly defined systems for identifying and treating the HIV virus, which, by then, had shown up in several parishes.
Today, the newly renamed Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL) is the lead civil society partner to the Government in the national response to HIV and AIDS. JASL's work includes HIV education, prevention and linkage to care and treatment, as well as care and support.
JASL also provides advocacy for an enabling environment and the preservation of the human rights and dignity of those most vulnerable to the HIV virus.
HIV EDUCATION AND PREVENTION
Since the early years, HIV and AIDS education have improved due to significant work by JASL and other civil society organisations.
JASL's HIV Education, Prevention and Linkage to Care programme is aimed at increasing awareness about HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as influencing positive behavioural change. In the last year, JASL has conducted 4,645 tests among members of the general population and a combined total of 2,209 tests among key groups comprising men who have sex with men (MSM), sex workers and women of trans experience. Meanwhile, 70,203 condoms and 1,142 lubricants have been distributed to encourage safer sex. JASL has also facilitated skills-building interventions for 61 MSM (men who have sex with men) and women of trans experience in order to reduce their social vulnerability to HIV.
TREATMENT CARE AND SUPPORT
Of the 29,600 persons living with HIV (PLHIV) in Jamaica, nearly 20 per cent are unaware of their status. At least 33 per cent are linked to care and provided with treatment through the provision of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), and psychosocial and other support services.
A hallmark of JASL's treatment and support programme is its stigma-free and non-discriminatory environment, and many continue to opt for services at JASL sites over locations where they are met with stigma and discrimination from health-care workers.
As at September 2017, JASL had 612 PLHIV enrolled in its care. Of that number, 547 or 89 per cent are retained in care, while a total of 292 or 57 per cent of the 513 persons on ARVs are virally suppressed. This means that the levels of HIV are low in the individuals, reducing the likelihood of them transmitting the virus while simultaneously improving their health outcomes.
JASL's medical and psychosocial services, through its use of a comprehensive case-management model, help to improve the health outcomes of PLHIV. This include clinical sessions with doctors and nurses, adherence counselling, nutritional counselling and support, psychological counselling, support groups, home and hospital visits, as well as external referrals for diagnostic and specialist services.
Support services are also provided for orphans and children made vulnerable to HIV, including adolescents living with HIV.
A total of 123 orphaned and vulnerable children were beneficiaries of JASL's programme this year. Tuition-fee payments and procurement of school supplies were the main forms of assistance given.
ENABLING ENVIRONMENT AND HUMAN RIGHTS
JASL's advocacy efforts have brought greater focus to the need for improvements in the enabling environment around HIV and AIDS, as there remain high levels of stigma and discrimination around HIV and AIDS.
In 2017, JASL conducted six sensitisation sessions with 117 health-care workers on human rights approaches to service provision and delivery.
On March 3, JASL made a submission to the joint select committee of Parliament, reviewing the Sexual Offences Act 2009 and other related acts. The reviews reflect the organisation's's position from a public health standpoint.
A highlight of JASL's advocacy was its annual silent protest held on Saturday in Half-Way Tree, the event observed International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Research has shown a direct link between violence against women and HIV.
On December 1, JASL will also celebrate World AIDS Day with a candlelight vigil at Carter Hall in Half-Way Tree to remember those who have lost their lives to AIDS-related illnesses.
JASL, through the support of donors such as the Global Fund, USAID, MAC AIDS Fund, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and Elton John AIDS Foundation, continues to intensify its programme through the organisation's central administration and its chapters in Kingston, St Ann and Montego Bay.
Celebrating human diversity, Jamaica AIDS Support for Life aims to be a world-class leader, creating and utilising best practices in the delivery of services to persons living with and affected by HIV and AIDS.