The Bahamas has seen a decline by almost half in new HIV/AIDS diagnoses over a seven-year span with 154 new cases recorded by the Ministry of Health in its most recent statistics released at the end of December 2018 – a decrease by 174 cases. At the end of December 2013, there were 328 cases, according to Bahamas AIDS Foundation President Lady Camille Barnett.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Barnett told The Nassau Guardian ahead of World AIDS Day, which is being recognized globally today.
“It’s wonderful to see the numbers going down, and know that we are doing the right thing, and headed in the right direction, but we still need education. Education! Education! Education!”
Twenty-one percent of the new cases, Barnett said, are between the ages of 15 and 24.
While she says the Ministry of Health has been doing an “amazing” job, Barnett said the teen and young adult positivity statistic “interests” them.
“That’s of interest to us in terms of our young people. I think they feel it can’t happen to [them] because they’re young.”
According to Barnett, there are three high risk groups – young people, sex workers, and men who have sex with men.
Of the new HIV/AIDS cases, most of them were males – 65 percent male and 35 percent females.
There are 6,025 people living with HIV/AIDS in The Bahamas as of December 2018, which equates to approximately 1.6 percent of the Bahamian population.
But despite the success by the Ministry of Health, Barnett said people have become too lax because they think there’s a cure, when there isn’t. She said what needs to happen is that people need to change their behavior.
Barnett says people need to come to the realization that changing behavior patterns is important.
“I know Bahamians aren’t every fond of condoms, and unless you’re going to be abstinent, using a condom is the only way to protect yourself first, and then to protect your partner,” she said.
The mother-to-child transmission statistics show there was only one in 2018.
It’s a number that has steadily declined over the years. There was one mother-to-child transmission in 2015 out of 54 births to HIV-positive women.
In 1995, statistics show that 30 percent of HIV-positive mothers gave birth to children that were HIV-positive.
The foundation president says the downward trend in positive births is due to the fact that it is one area that can be easily controlled. Once a female opts for pre-natal care during pregnancy and once tested, the expectant mother can be put on medications that have to be taken early in pregnancy, right away.
A concept introduced by the UN’s program on HIV/AIDS in 2013, focuses on a 90-90-90 set of goals. The idea is that by the end of 2020 – 90 percent of people who are infected will be diagnosed, 90 percent of people who are diagnosed will be on antiretroviral treatment, and 90 percent of those who receive antiretrovirals will be virally suppressed.
By 2030, the aim is 95-95-95.
Across the Caribbean, AIDS-related deaths and HIV infections have declined more than 30 percent in the Caribbean in the last decade, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) yesterday.
In a report, PAHO said annual deaths from AIDS-related illnesses declined by 37 percent from 2010 through 2019 in Caribbean countries while new yearly infections from the HIV virus dropped by 29 percent.
And that increased testing and improvement in delivery of lifelong antiretroviral treatment led to the decline in annual deaths from about 11,000 in 2010 to 6,900 in 2019. The decline in infections, the report noted, resulted from various preventative measures including use of medications taken before and after contact with someone with HIV. The number of infections dropped from about 18,000 in 2010 to 13,000 in 2019.
As World AIDS Day is recognized globally today, it is being done under the theme “Global Solidarity. Shared Responsibility” – a theme which Barnett says is on the mark, because she says everybody has to get involved.
“It’s not just The Bahamas, everywhere in the world is experiencing the same concern. We have to come together to fight this disease and share responsibility in terms of protecting ourselves, our partners, and not discriminating against HIV-positive people.”
Barnett says while discrimination may not be as widespread as it once was, it is still in existence.
“We have come a long way since the 1980s, but stigma is still an issue, unfortunately. As people are educated about how you contract HIV, I think people will become more comfortable, and realize the only way to catch it is through unprotected sex with someone that is positive.”
As World AIDS Day is recognized, she says she wants people to remember that HIV is still a concern and an issue.
“I also want them to think about those persons that have died. We have lost thousands of persons to the virus from the 1980s, so I want people to remember those persons and realize that because the virus is still with us, they have a responsibility, and everyone has a role to play by protecting themselves and their partners. You need to be upfront with your partners and committed to one partner,” she said.
The first case of HIV diagnosed in The Bahamas was in 1983, two years after the first case was described in the United States in 1981.
Barnett says the COVID-19 pandemic has also presented a hindrance to the Bahamas AIDS Foundation’s work, which focuses on education and awareness as they have not been able to host their fundraisers this year. In response to the cancellation of its signature event, the Red Ribbon Ball, the foundation has taken to the online platform and is hosting an event called, “Let’s Not Attend”, which is billed as an elegant evening of self-indulgence and imagination in honor of the 2020 Red Ribbon Ball. Patrons will be able to enjoy the melodic sounds of “My Play List” and a delightful meal by “Chef Vous” (you) at 8 p.m. in the grand ballroom of su casa (your house). And for every donation over $50, donors receive a bottle of wine (AIX Rose 1.5 liters) from 700 Wines & Spirits.
“The idea is for people to make a donation at www.bahamasaidsfoundation.org while they are cooking a meal and showing themselves preparing the meal.
The “Let’s Not Attend” event went live two weeks ago, and will continue as long as people want to make a donation and want to support the cause, according to Barnett.
The foundation has also opted for a fun run-walk cycle fundraiser in which they encourage people to “paint the town red” by registering and making a $20 donation online, picking up their red ribbons at The Bahamas AIDS Foundation’s office at #14 Delancy Street, then run, walk or cycle on one of the following routes – Arawak Cay to Westridge, Eastern Parade to Montague, Carmichael Primary School to Gladstone Road, and Blue Hill Road from Bay Street to South Beach – and tie their red ribbons on trees along the selected routes to show their support for HIV/AIDS in The Bahamas.
The World AIDS Day church service takes place today at St. Agnes Anglican Church at 1 p.m.