KINGSTON — Minister of Health, Hon. Rudyard Spencer, is urging Jamaicans to get tested for HIV, even as the country continues to make significant strides towards better treatment and care for those infected with the disease.
The Minister made the call in a statement read by Vice Chairman, National AIDS Committee (NAC) and Acting Director, Health Promotion and Protection Division, Ministry of Health, Dr. Kevin Harvey, on June 24, at the NAC’s annual general meeting held at the Courtleigh Hotel in New Kingston.
With today being observed as Regional Testing Day in more than 20 countries throughout the Caribbean, Mr. Spencer said it is critical that all Jamaicans know their HIV status, as this was the first step in fighting the dreaded illness.
“It starts with getting as many people as possible tested. We have to place renewed focus on reaching the more than 18,000 HIV/AIDS infected persons, who do not know their status as part of intensified action to combat the disease,” he stated.
“This is important so persons can access the necessary treatment and care they will need if they are infected. With adequate care and support, HIV infected persons can live long, healthy and fulfilling lives,” he emphasised.
Mr. Spencer informed that in 2010, more than 225,000 tests were conducted in public and private laboratories, with more than 58,000 tests done between January and March of this year.
Noting that an emphasis on testing and treatment, particularly by pregnant women, has led to significant declines in mother to child transmission, Mr. Spencer informed that such cases have been reduced to less than five per cent from a prevalence of more than 25 per cent in 2004.
“I appeal to all pregnant women to get tested in order to ensure that your unborn child is protected and does not have to live with the consequences of the disease,” he pleaded. “Treatment is available to prevent transmission to your baby,” he pointed out.
In the meantime, the Minister commended the work of the NAC, which he said has made substantial contributions in support of the National HIV/STI Programme, as well as the fight against stigma and discrimination in Jamaica.
He said, under the NAC’s watch, HIV and AIDS have moved from being frightening diseases, as was widely the view in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to illnesses that can now be dealt with in a positive way.
“Persons living with HIV and AIDS are no longer treated as outcasts, but are productive members of society through advances in treatment and care and a better understanding of the illness,” Minister Spencer remarked.
“We still have a far way to go to reduce the levels of stigma and discrimination, but through all our commitment, I am sure that we will continue to make significant inroads as we have been doing over the years,” he added.
He noted, however, that there was hope in this regard as the 2008 National Knowledge, Attitude, Bahaviour and Practise (KAPB) study indicated that 82.8 per cent of Jamaicans said they were willing to care for a family member, who became sick with the virus. This, he informed, was an improvement on the 2004 figures, which stood at 78 per cent.
“Despite this improvement a number of vulnerable groups are still being discriminated against and exposed to physical harm. For its part, the Ministry is exploring the possibility of making amendments to the Public Health Act and the relevant Public Health Regulation to remove certain provisions that could be regarded as discriminatory and that do not apply with respect to HIV and AIDS,” Mr. Spencer informed.
In the meantime, NAC Chairman, Howard Hamilton Q.C., noted that after more than 20 years in existence, the NAC was now at a crossroads as the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic changes.
“We now need to assess our achievements and our new role in this new dispensation,” he stated.
He further remarked that despite the many achievements made by the organization, there was still a lot to accomplish, including the expansion of advocacy programmes in order to significantly reduce stigma and discrimination; providing a more focused multi sectoral coordination; and strengthening the Parish AIDS Associations so that they can better provide the intervention and programmes required at the community level.
“These now require us to assess the capacity that exist within the NAC and engage in a more structured and targeted way with civil society,” he pointed out.
The NAC is a non-governmental organisation established in 1988 to provide a multi-sectoral response to the HIV epidemic.
Statistics show that at the end of 2009, an estimated 240,000 people were living with HIV in the Caribbean. An estimated 17,000 people in the region became infected with HIV in 2009 and around 12,000 died of AIDS.
After sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean remains the region with a higher HIV prevalence than any other area in the world, with one per cent of the adult population infected.
By ATHALIAH REYNOLDS, JIS Reporter