Ever since the first cases of HIV/AIDS came to light in Barbados back in 1984, when two men developed the full-blown disease and one died, health authorities have made significant progress in managing and controlling the spread of this frightening epidemic.
The island has emerged from a situation during the 1980s and 1990s, where the perceived male disease had been killing more than 100 people in four separate years, to an average of just over 38 annually, between 2003 and now.
Although the HIV and AIDS cases and deaths among men continue to far outstrip the incidence among their female counterparts, there were times during the past 29 years that the gap was all but closed. During that period, 2,145 men were infected with HIV, compared to 1,281 women.
Of those, 1,529 men acquired AIDS, which led to 1,093 deaths, while 719 females went on to develop the full-blown virus, resulting in 415 of them dying.
Obviously worried about the high spate of deaths annually – an average of about 63 up to 2001 – health authorities had to find a way, or should we say ways, to stem this trend. So, apart from the standard testing of the general population, the ministry of health started an aggressive screening programme of all pregnant women back in 1995, with a view to preventing the likelihood of them – if infected – from passing on the disease to their unborn and also introduced free anti-retroviral drugs to all Barbadians, a measure attributable to the substantial decline in HIV,AIDS and deaths. Both initiatives continue to paid dividends for Barbados.
“Children aren’t being born with HIV anymore [in Barbados]. Once we diagnose women who are pregnant with HIV, we can put them on anti-retroviral therapy, and this reduces the likelihood that they will pass the infection onto their children. And because of this very aggressive intervention that we have had in place since 1995, we have not had a case of HIV being transmitted from a mother to a child since 2007,” boasted Senior Medical Officer of Health with Responsibility for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, Dr Anton Best. Three years ago, the ministry also introduced a pilot programme where persons tested for HIV, could know the result almost immediately.
Known as the rapid testing, it has so far screened more than 4,000 people. “It’s really a service that we are rendering, but the pilot component of the project is really to ensure that there is quality. I should really explain what a rapid test is. We have standard HIV testing at the QEH, which is, you take sample of blood from a person who wants to be tested for HIV and send it to the hospital,” Best added.
“The challenge with that, is that the result, in many cases, usually takes anywhere between five and 10 days to come back. Rapid testing allow you to do an HIV test on a person, and get back the results in about 20 to 30 minutes and it’s done on the spot. Now rapid testing is highly subjected to human error, so therein lies the problem. So you have to make sure that a lot of things are put in place including training of the persons who are doing the HIV rapid testing and including a mechanism to follow up to make sure that what they are doing is of a high quality and a high standard,” the senior medical officer pointed out.
He revealed, too, that the pilot project provided for two tests to be done where a blood sample from the rapid test would be sent to the QEH laboratory to see if the results from that standard test, were the same as the on-the- spot screening.
“Three years later, we have about 4,700 tests done by rapid testing and we have had zero discordant results. So we are pretty sure that the quality is of a high standard. The main results, I can tell you. We have had about 50 positives, which I think equates to about 1.2 per cent, probably a little bit higher of that testing population having been HIV, nothing to be alarmed at, because that is in keeping with what we know about the prevalence of HIV in Barbados overall,” he asserted.
Health authorities will also be taking a more serious look at the sex trade in Barbados to determine the incidence of HIV among that vulnerable group.
“What we have decided to do within the ministry of health, is to embark on a behavioural study among female sex workers in Barbados, with a biological component. We are implementing a study where we ask women what some of their knowledge levels are, what some of their practices are, what some of their challenges are, and then we do a biological component to it. So we will be screening these women who participate in this study for specific sexually transmitted infections, including HIV,” the Government health officer told Barbados TODAY.
“At the end of the study, what this would tell us is, what are the behavioural patterns of sex workers in Barbados and what the prevalence of certain sexually transmitted infections are as well. The results of this study, at best, would not be ready before 2014/2015,” Best disclosed. [email protected]