Having lived with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) for nearly 30 years, Andrew Jones, 58, said yesterday that it is heartbreaking to see so many people still dying from the disease.
Jones, a resident of Cat Island, was living in the United States when he was diagnosed with AIDS amid public hysteria surrounding the epidemic.
“When I first had [human immunodeficiency virus] HIV, everybody died,” he said.
“I was told by a doctor in 1992 in a hospital in New York City that I was going to die that night or the next day or the next week; that I was at the end of the line, and that was true at the time. I happened to have survived because I found the very best doctors and the very best medicines, and I had support.
“In 2019, there is no reason at all that anybody should die of HIV.
“The test is very easy to find out if you’re positive. The treatments are very simple now. It’s down to one pill a day, which will suppress the virus.
“The immune system can rebound, but there are still people dying because they never knew that they were HIV-positive until they wind up in the hospital with an opportunistic infection, which can kill them.”
A recent United Nations report revealed that nearly 1,200 people died from AIDS in The Bahamas between 2008 and 2017.
In 2017, 92 people died from AIDS.
“It’s painful to me that people are still dying,” Jones said.
“I’ve lost a few friends over the last few years; people who I helped to get diagnosed and on treatment. And they went on treatment and then stopped.”
He said that he believes the stigma surrounding the disease stops people from getting tested and seeking treatment.
“I think that the stigma around HIV, one of the reasons I hear from people who don’t want to get tested is, ‘Well I don’t want to know if I’m going to die,’” he said.
“But that’s completely backwards, because if you get tested, you can go on treatment, and you will not die, but if you don’t get tested, you run the risk of dying.”
Bahamas AIDS Foundation President Lady Camille Barnett also expressed concern over how the stigma surrounding HIV prevents people from getting the help they need.
“Carrying that secret has prevented people from going to get follow-up care,” she said in an interview with The Nassau Guardian.
“So they decide they’re going to get follow-up care, but then they see somebody that they know in the vicinity of Princess Margaret Hospital, so they turn around and go home.
“That’s how real the stigma is, that they are prepared to not go and get treated because somebody may see them that they know.”
She added, “The stigma, the discrimination is very much real, and I know we have come a very long way in terms of that, but the fact is it does still exist.
“I can think of instances where parents, on learning that their child is friendly with somebody who is HIV positive, have reacted very badly and not wanted their child to play with a child who is HIV-positive.
“It really is connected to a lack of education and ignorance on how you can and can’t get HIV.”
Jones said he also knows of people who don’t go to receive treatment because they do not want to be seen by others.
“I know people will not even go into the clinic, because they don’t even want people to see them going into the clinic,” he said.
“I think there’s a sort of assumption that everyone who gets it has done something funny along the line, but the truth is you can get HIV on your wedding night from your faithful spouse who might have picked it up somewhere or been attacked or raped.
“There are so many reasons that someone could get HIV.”
However, Jones acknowledged that there has been improvement in the public’s perception of HIV and AIDS patients over the years.
“It’s changed dramatically,” he said.
“I was diagnosed with what they used to call full-blown AIDS. It’s really just AIDS, which is the condition where the immune system is already destroyed. That was in about 1991 or 1992, almost 30 years ago, and I had been infected sometime before that because it takes a while for the virus to do the damage to progress from HIV-positive to AIDS; it takes a while.”
“I was living in the U.S. at the time. I’m a Bahamian, but I was living abroad, and those were the years when kids were being driven out of school. People were losing their homes, their jobs, their families. I mean, everybody was absolutely terrified.”
Jones said, however, that he has always been fortunate to have a supportive family.
“In my life, stigma and discrimination is less of a factor because I’m open about it, because I’ve been talking about it for 25 years,” he said.
“Plus, I had some sort of privilege from being educated and having family that supported me and I think it’s hardest for people who don’t have family support. I can’t even imagine what that would be like.”
Jones urged people to get tested and emphasized that HIV is no longer a death sentence.
“If everybody was on treatment, then the epidemic would be stopped,” he said.
“No one else would get it.
“What’s happening now is that people aren’t getting tested, so they’re winding up in the hospital when it’s already too late for treatment. That’s why people are still dying.”
Jones added, “There’s really positive news about HIV.
“All of the fear, and believe me, I know the fear, because I lived with it for years and years of sickness and death, that doesn’t have to be the story. The story right now is that people are HIV-positive and are on treatment. It’s not a cure, but it’s a functional cure.
“It’s a treatment that keeps you alive, keeps you from spreading the virus, and is relatively cheap and easy to handle.
“For someone from my generation where everybody died, it’s miraculous. And I just wish that that good news would rise above the fear that was instilled very early on in the epidemic.”