Since the beginning of the epidemic in the early 1980s, The Bahamas has come a long way in its battle against HIV/AIDS.
In fact, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the annual number of deaths from AIDS-related illnesses declined by 37 percent between 2010 and 2019 in Caribbean countries.
This year, the theme of the 2020 World AIDS Day is “Global Solidarity. Shared Responsibility.”
“I think people are beginning to realize that this is a fight that all of us have to fight together,” said Camille Lady Barnett, president of The Bahamas AIDS Foundation (BAD).
“Everybody has a part to play. You have a part to play to protect yourself, to protect your partner, and not to discriminate against persons who are HIV-positive, because that stigma is still there.”
Prior to World AIDS Day, Dr. Nikkiah Forbes, director of the National HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Programme, provided an updated assessment of HIV/AIDS throughout The Bahamas.
Forbes said, “The programmatic estimate of the number of persons living with HIV in The Bahamas in 2019 is 6,076.
“That is trending downwards and we have seen a gradual decline in HIV infection in The Bahamas.
“We’re having more persons on treatment too; that’s gone up considerably.”
“We treat all persons with HIV regardless of their immune status.”
However, Forbes admitted, “We do have challenges; it’s not all good news.”
According to the UN AIDS Global HIV & AIDS statistics 2020 fact sheet, roughly 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses around the world in 2019.
“We want to see no one die of AIDS,” Forbes said.
“This year, we had 74 persons reported as dying of AIDS-related causes.”
Forbes explained that since the country began to monitor the epidemic in the early 1980s, around 5,700 people have died in The Bahamas.
“So, as it relates to our strategy to end AIDS, we want to see more persons in treatment and more people achieving the gold standard of therapy called viral suppression,” she said.
“We also want to see a significant decline in HIV infections.”
The Bahamas follows the UN Fast Track world strategy with goals to reach 90-90-90 targets in the year 2020 and then 95-95-95 in 2030.
The 90-90-90 figure means reaching 90 percent in three categories: people living with HIV that know their status, people living with HIV that are in treatment, and people who are virally suppressed (people who can no longer transmit the disease).
“But globally, we will not meet those targets,” Forbes said.
“The world has not met those targets. The Caribbean has not met those, and neither has The Bahamas.”
She added, “The world is lagging behind and The Bahamas is no different.
“It’s been increasingly difficult to reach targets and to provide care.”
Like Forbes, Lady Barnett also said that the coronavirus pandemic has negatively affected the work of BAD this year.
“COVID-19, of course, put a little cramp in our style,” she said.
“We could no longer bring kids to us to work with them.”
However, in spite of the virus, BAD has been able to continue their outreach program for children and adolescents infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
“We decided that we would have to go to them,” she said.
“Kids would come to us Monday to Friday after school and they would get a hot meal, help from tutors on their assignments, they had access to a social worker, case aid, a clinical psychologist…”
During the height of the pandemic, Barnett explained that BAD had been trying its best to maintain a presence in the lives of its clients.
Lady Barnett also explained that the foundation has had no in-person fundraisers this year.
Instead, BAD recently organized a virtual event.
This year, in lieu of the annual Red Ribbon Ball, BAD is hosting the Let’s Not Attend virtual event where patrons of the Ball can make donations to the work of the Foundation.
“People are having real fun with it,” Lady Barnett said.
“Some people weren’t quite sure or thought that we’d made a mistake or made a typo because there is no November 32.”
All in good fun, the details for the event are listed as follows: “Saturday the 32 of November, at 8pm o’clock, in the Grand Ballroom of Su Casa.”
A fun way of saying: let’s not attend.
Also in honor of World AIDS Day, The Bahamas AIDS Foundation hosted a virtual candlelight vigil on Monday evening.
Before the vigil took place, Lady Barnett told The Nassau Guardian, “What I’m excited about is that the kids are going to participate. We tape recorded some of the things that we’re going to play and you’ll hear some of their poems, for example.”
The children’s poems are all very soul-wrenching, according to Lady Barnett.
“We can’t imagine what they go through, especially for teenagers,” she said.
“Teenage years are rough anyways and you add on top of the fact that they are HIV-positive. For many of them, they’re carrying around this secret that they can’t tell their friends or maybe don’t even want to tell some of their family members.”
BAD will also be hosting a fun run/walk in regulation with COVID-19 safety measures.
“We’ve selected four routes that people normally would walk when they’re doing exercise and we’re asking people to tie red ribbons on those four routes,” she said.
For a donation of $20, people who sign up will receive six red bows that they can tie on trees and lamp poles along the routes at their leisure over a three to four week period.
The routes are Arawak Cay to Westridge; Eastern Parade to Montagu; the Sybil Strachan Primary School in Carmichael to Gladstone Road, and Baillou Hill Road to South Beach.
With each coming year, The Bahamas moves one step closer to total management and control of the HIV/AIDS virus.
“WHO and PAHO recommend self-testing as a key strategy for reaching the UN goal of having 90 percent of people with HIV know their status,” PAHO said.
As a way to increase self-testing, PAHO and UNAIDS are launching a widespread public information campaign to increase awareness about the availability of self-testing and, as a result, demand for it.
They are doing this today for World AIDS Day.
Commenting on the current state of HIV/AIDS in The Bahamas, Lady Barnett said that it is improving, without a doubt.
She explained that the number of new cases, the number of persons testing positive, the number of deaths, and the number of hospitalizations are all going down.
“So, we are headed in the right direction, we are improving our stats, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.
Forbes ended her statistical update on HIV/AIDS by saying, “Part of our strategy is that we focus on what we need to do and what we can do better.”