By FARRAH JOHNSON
HEALTH officials are working to remove the stigma around HIV testing and are targeting young Bahamians in particular to know their HIV status.
The Ministry of Health will host ‘Testing in the Gardens’ today to raise public awareness on the importance of citizens knowing their status.
To ensure to early HIV diagnosis and “as a safeguard to the health and well-being of all Bahamians,” the ministry said it has “scaled up” HIV testing during the month of June.
Today’s event will feature free testing all day at Royal Victoria Gardens on Shirley Street from 8am to 4pm.
In a press statement, the ministry revealed HIV and AIDS remain “significant problems” in the country with an “estimated two per cent HIV prevalence.”
Branishka Lewis, the acting director for the HIV/AIDS Centre, confirmed the HIV/AIDS statistics reported earlier this year by Health Minister Dr Duane Sands. At the time, the minister revealed 8,667 persons are living with HIV in the country.
This indicates that in 2015, roughly 1 in 50 persons tested positive for HIV.
Ms Lewis explained these particular results are the most recent because the data for the 2017 statistics have yet to be completed.
“We have actually seen decreases in the amount of new HIV cases as well as decreases in the amount of AIDS related death,” she said.
“That year of significant interest is that we had no babies born positive, and we’re talking about babies who were born to HIV positive moms,” she continued.
When asked which age groups were most vulnerable to contracting the virus, Ms Lewis told The Tribune: “Right now our young people, that’s who we really want to look at and we really want to target – so that would be our 15 to 24 year olds, as well as 30-39.”
Ms Lewis added: “As with any other medical condition, the earlier you find out if you are living with that condition – HIV, diabetes, cancer—the better the overall prognosis is for you.
She also said early testing “increases education and knowledge,” because it is an opportunity for health care providers to discuss “risk reduction behaviours” with persons.
This in turn can encourage people to avoid “high risk activities” that could potentially lead to them contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the future.
She explained the key is for people to gain awareness of the ways in which HIV can and cannot be transmitted, because a lot of the negative perceptions imposed on persons living with HIV are due to “ignorance and fear.”
“Once persons are educated and they understand that, ‘Hey it’s okay for my co-worker to be living with HIV, or for the restaurant that I go to for the worker to be HIV positive’, that it is completely safe, then that is going to help decrease it (the stigma),” she said.
Ms Lewis said she believes that this can help “normalise” HIV testing so that it can be “another routine test”, similar to the health fairs held for blood pressure and glucose screenings.
“By doing something like this it shows that everybody does it, everybody has an HIV test, and it doesn’t matter that ‘Oh, this person may be living a particular lifestyle and what not,’ no, everybody is going to have it done,” she said.
Ms Lewis stated that this helps to heighten public awareness of HIV and by extension, helps reduce some of the stigma and discrimination associated with the virus.
“For persons who may test HIV positive, it’s going to help us to link them to care... because we can link you to a doctor, get you on medication, which is provided free of cost,” she said.
The free service, she further explained, includes doctor visits, blood work and medications.
“Once we get a person who is living with HIV on medication, that’s going to help reduce the chance of them transmitting the virus to other persons as well. So that’s even a prevention method,” she explained.