National Review

The HIV/AIDS reality

Bahamian Shawn Thomas, 60, is HIV positive and is not afraid to show the world who she is in spite of the stigma surrounding the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The sprightly native, who described herself as “biologically 22 years old”, said she doesn’t consider herself as “having HIV”.

“My blood tested positive in November of 1997,” she told National Review in a recent interview.

“So at that particular time this was basically considered a death sentence and so I really had to just go into my closet, shut the door and pray and ask God about it.

“And so, I’m like, I’m either going to believe what the doctors are telling me or I’m going to believe the Word.”

She added, “It’s a radical approach, but I was like either I’m going to be radical or I’m going to croak.”

Her comments come as the world recognized World AIDS Day on December 1. It’s a day which seeks to reduce the stigma associated with the disease while raising awareness of and supporting the fight against it, and encouraging everyone to know their status.

The latest statistics from the Ministry of Health show that there were an estimated 5,287 people living with HIV in the country at the end of 2017. Of the ministry’s “populations of concerns” were young people between the ages of 15-24; homosexual men, where prevalence of HIV was “fourteen times” that of the general population; and “late testers”, of whom eight had died by the end of that very year.

According to the HIV/AIDS Center, in 2018 the number of people living with HIV increased to 6,025.

“It is a struggle, absolutely…,” Thomas said.

“Basically, you have to come to terms with it and yourself, and you have to make the determination as to how you’re going to move forward.

“I accept that I am who God says I am and I’m sticking with that story.

“Basically that’s how I live, and every day is a day of thanksgiving and joy.

“I believe that I’m always in the right place at the right time, and so I just live my life in a certain way.”

Thomas highlighted the importance that faith had on her life, but also noted the impact that organizations like Samaritan Ministries and the Bahamas AIDS Foundation can make to assist people “who are on this journey”. She has been involved with both organizations, adding that “once you realize that you’re blessed and you be a blessing to other people, the blessings continue to flow”.

Her belief echoes this year’s World AIDS Day theme of  “Communities Make the Difference”, which highlights the important role that the community plays in providing support for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

President of the local AIDS foundation Camille Lady Barnett said that the organization provides support to people of all ages living with HIV but that they are focused on children and adolescents at this time.

There is a misconception that HIV/AIDS can only be transmitted sexually, however, it can be contracted through the exchange of bodily fluids from an infected individual which can include blood and also a mother’s breast milk.

“We have about 126 young people; children between the ages, I would say, 0 to about 25, most of whom contracted HIV from their moms. I think we have one person who got it otherwise but most people contract it from their mom,” Lady Barnett disclosed to National Review.

She added, “These kids really need support.

“There’s anxiety – ‘What about my future?’

“‘Why do I have to take these pills? I don’t like the way they taste.’ I can’t tell anybody because they’re going to discriminate against me…’

“So there are all these kinds of issues that they have to deal with.

“But that’s what we try to tackle. We provide a safe space for them to come and feel comfortable, and provide them support with whatever they need…

“Because the reality is that…it’s not easy for these kids.”

Thomas expressed similar sentiments from an adult’s perspective.

“It’s not for the faint of heart, I’ll tell you that,” she said.

“But it is a refining process and the thing is I’ve always been open about it, which was another radical approach that I took.

“A lot of people would keep it secret. But the energy that it takes to keep it secret, that’s energy that you can use for healing.

“The thing is, really and truly, people with cancer, whatever other ailment that people put labels on, we’re all on a journey and making the most of the journey.

“So many times labels have a tendency to box people into certain cubbyholes and stuff, but we’re so much more than that.”

Data from a 2019 survey conducted by pharmaceutical company Merck in conjunction with the HIV initiative Prevention Access Campaign revealed that “28 percent of HIV-negative millennials said they have avoided hugging, talking to, or being friends with someone with HIV, which cannot be transmitted through casual contact”, and “30 percent said they would prefer not to interact socially with someone with HIV, and many said they have avoided shaking hands or sharing food”.

Thomas said that although some people may discriminate against people living with HIV, she doesn’t believe anyone should let it bother them.

“You have to give people the space to be themselves and allow it, and you also have to know within yourself who you are.”

Locally, events such as free testing sessions and the Red Ribbon Ball were held in commemoration of World AIDS Day, seeking to spread the awareness. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the World Health Organization (WHO), offices of UNAIDS and UNICEF, PANCAP and the Latin American Network of Young People Living with HIV (J+LAC) also jointly adopted the slogan “Talk To Me Openly” to encourage open conversations about HIV.

‘I’m living. Period.’

While modern medicine has dramatically improved the survival rate since the disease first came to light – with data from the WHO showing that between 2000 and 2018 HIV-related deaths around the globe fell by 45 percent, with 13.6 million lives saved due to treatment – Lady Barnett noted that this is a challenging area as some people do not take medication as they should to suppress the virus.

She said that there are some cases where a social worker has to monitor child patients to ensure that they are actually adhering to their medication.

“That is a challenge because often people, there’s a little bit of denial going on throughout too. They start to feel better and they say, ‘Oh maybe I’m not positive, maybe I’m okay.’

“But you’ve got to take it every day for the rest of your life. Just like the same way diabetics and people with high blood pressure must take their medication every day.”

Although HIV (human immunodeficiency viruses) and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) are closely related, the two are actually not the same and it does not follow that someone who has been diagnosed as HIV-positive will necessarily contract AIDS. Rather, the latter can develop if HIV remains untreated.

Data from the Ministry of Health revealed that there was an average of 117 AIDS-related deaths per year between 2008 and 2017.

In an interview with The Nassau Guardian earlier this year, Andrew Jones – a Bahamian who has been living with AIDS for nearly 30 years – commented, “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 study from PAHO found that globally, 8.1 million people were not even aware they were living with the disease, bringing attention to the need for awareness and education of the illness.

Thomas, meanwhile, has taken advantage of stem cell treatment.

“Well at the moment I would say that I am on the medication that they’ve prescribed because the doctors have assured me now that the medication at this time is like vitamins.

“At one point I was offered stem cells and I availed myself of those because I understood the whole concept and it seemed like a pretty good idea,” she continued, saying that the treatment was a “blessing” for her.

The Ministry of Health has pledged they are “committed to the ambitious 90-90-90 HIV treatment initiative” in which the aim is that 90 percent of people living with HIV will know their status; 90 percent will receive treatment; and 90 percent receiving treatment will achieve viral suppression.

The ultimate goal of this initiative is to eradicate the disease globally by 2030.

In the meantime, Thomas wants to encourage survivors to not succumb to a victim mentality.

“Individually and collectively, especially people in the Caribbean, we have to realize who we are and what we bring to the table, and stand up for ourselves and move forward because we always seem to come on looking like the victim, et cetera, and we’re not,” she said.

“Things happen and it’s not always a pretty sight but you have to decide how you’re going to respond to it.

“Sometimes you get some lemons, and either you’re gonna make yourself some lemonade – or I’ll make some mojitos,” she continued with a laugh.

“That’s what life is all about – to enjoy it.”

She added, “I’m living. Period.”

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