The spotlight for World AIDS Day 2018 is on HIV testing. There are 37 million people living with HIV globally, the highest number ever. Knowing your HIV status has many advantages, yet a quarter of persons infected with the virus do not know that they have the virus. The Turks and Caicos joins the rest of the world in observing World AIDS Day which is observed on the December 1st every year. This December 1st marks 30 years since the first world AIDS Day. The local theme for this year is “One Drop is All It Takes, Know Your Status, Get Tested”.
“Testing is an essential entry point to accessing HIV treatment, prevention, care and support services. People who test positive for HIV can be immediately linked to treatment (antiretroviral therapy) to keep them alive and well. Most persons do not understand that when viral load suppression is reached, there is the prevention of transmission of the virus,” stated Aldora Robinson Director of Health Promotion and Advocacy Unit. She further stated; “That it is critical that when persons are placed on treatment they understand it is for life and requires individuals to religiously take their medication everyday.”
Knowing your HIV status also empowers people to make informed decisions about how they can prevent HIV infection. From 1984 until the end of 2017, 627 people were diagnosed with HIV in the Turks and Caicos. At the end of 2017 there were a total of 514 persons living with HIV in the Turks and Caicos Islands with an estimated prevalence of 1.29% in the general population. The highest prevalence was observed among persons who were in the 65+ years age group in 2017, one may wonder why are older persons being diagnosed with HIV. Could it be that they are getting tested late? This is a lot of food for thought.
The Minister of Health, Agriculture, Sports and Human Services, Honorable Edwin Astwood, stated that; “We must challenge the stigma and discrimination that surrounds HIV in our society.” Hon. Astwood further stated that; “These two social attitudes continue to act as threats and barriers to the success of our response to HIV.” Hon. Astwood encouraged persons to get the facts and remove the barriers that prevent person’s from getting tested and seeking treatment.
To address the prevalence of HIV within the Turks and Caicos the Ministry of Health, Agriculture, Sports and Human Services have implemented a number of strategies through its Health Promotion and Advocacy Unit. There has not been a HIV positive baby born in the Turks and Caicos Islands since 2007. The Ministry is vigorously working towards the 90 90 90 global targets, point-of-care testing which is free has been implemented within all governments clinics. The private sector has also benefitted from training for point-of-care testing and should therefore, be offering point-of-care testing at patient encounter.
Mobile HIV testing has increased where HIV testing is being done in communities. Private businesses, government offices and churches have also benefitted from these services. Antiretroviral drugs (HIV medication) have been offered free of charge in country since 2005. The Health Promotion and Advocacy Unit uses various platforms to educate the general public and target groups. Some examples of the range of approaches used to advance HIV education and awareness includes conferences, health matters, radio commercials, workshops, peer education for school based students, social media such as Facebook pages and Instagram. There is also a robust condom distribution programme where condoms are distributed for free. All blood which is transfused in TCI is 100% from voluntary donors and is screened for HIV and other diseases. Other HIV strategies include collaboration with NGOs, a functioning HIV multi-sectoral committee that also has a steering committee, participation in regional meetings (e.g. PAHO, PANCAP etc.) and recently we hosted 2 stigma and discrimination training workshops for health care providers.
The Ministry is asking persons to do their part your health is your right take it and live positively.
Facts about HIV
How HIV is Transmitted:
- Through mother-to-child transmission - The transmission between an infected mother and her baby during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
- Through unprotected sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal) or unprotected oral sex with an infected person.
- Transfusion of contaminated blood or blood products or transplantation of contaminated tissue or organs.
- The sharing of contaminated injecting equipment (needles, syringes or tattooing equipment) and solutions.
- Through the use of contaminated surgical equipment and other sharp instruments.
To prevent HIV infection:
- Abstaining from sexual activity.
- Practice safe sexual behaviours such as using condoms properly during sexual intercourse at all times.
- Get tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV to prevent onward transmission.
- Avoid injecting drugs, or if you do, always use and properly dispose of sterile needles and syringes.
- If you have HIV, start antiretroviral therapy as soon as possible for your own health and to prevent HIV transmission to your sexual or drug-using partner or to your infant (if you are pregnant or breastfeeding).