There was some rather disconcerting news about the Caribbean coming out of a United Nations agency two days ago that has profound implications for the region as a whole and its development prospects.
New data released by the Geneva-based Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS, more commonly known as UNAIDS, showed that HIV infections among adults in the region are on the rise again, following “years of steady decline”.
An annual nine per cent increase for the Caribbean was recorded between 2010 and 2015, the period which was examined. The Caribbean figure is collective, roping in every country. For the purpose of clarity, the point must be made that the problem is really concentrated in a few countries and Barbados is not one of them.
At a global level, the data showed that the rate of HIV infection among adults, after undergoing significant decline since the illness peaked in 1997, had now stalled, with the result that no declines were recorded during the five year period.
There was some good news, however. It was the continuing success by health authorities around the world, including Barbados and the Caribbean, in reducing the rate of infection among children, especially from infected mother to child during pregnancy.
“We are sounding the alarm,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé as he launched the agency’s latest Prevention Gap Report at a media conference on Wednesday. “The power of prevention is not being realized. If there is a resurgence in new HIV infections now, the epidemic will become impossible to control. The world needs to take urgent and immediate action to close the prevention gap.”
Besides the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa had increases in HIV infection among adults. In the case of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it was a whopping 57 per cent while for the Middle East and North Africa, the figure was four per cent. No significant increases were reported in other regions.
The fact that HIV infection among adults in the Caribbean is showing an increase, will obviously cause questions to be raised about the effectiveness of current approaches to combat the spread of the illness, especially public education campaigns. In this regard, regional governments have committed considerable resources since HIV/AIDS became a major global health issue 35 years ago.
Regional governments, therefore, including Barbados’, cannot reasonably be accused of neglecting the issue. In fact, at a high level UN meeting on HIV/AIDS in New York last month, St Kittsv and Nevis Prime Minister Dr Timothy Harris, who has responsibility at the CARICOM level for the issue, pointed to several regional successes, including halving the HIV prevalence rate from 2.2 to 1.1 per cent between 2006 and 2015 and a reduction of AIDS-related deaths from 20,000 to 8,000.
What the new data really emphasizes is that responsibility for prevention, or remaining HIV-free, lies ultimately with each individual through the choices they make. There is little doubt that HIV awareness is up as a result of public education efforts and that persons today have greater knowledge of the behaviours that put them at high risk compared with 25 years ago. Therefore, it is for each individual, especially those at high risk, to complement what the authorities are doing by choosing to play safely.
HIV, an acronym for Human Immuno-Deficiency Virus, leads to AIDS – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Without treatment, an infected person can experience a rapid weakening of the body’s immune or defence system, rendering him or her vulnerable to a host of opportunistic illnesses which eventually cause death. Unprotected sex is the main mode of transmission.
Since the start of the HIV/AIDS pandemic 35 years ago, 35 million people worldwide have died. Data has consistently shown that persons most at risk are gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients, transgender people, people who inject drugs and prisoners.
Altogether, they accounted for 35 per cent of new HIV infections globally between 2010 and 2015. According to the UNAIDS report, men who have sex with men are 24 times more likely to become infected with HIV than the general population, sex workers are ten times more likely and people who inject drugs are 24 times more likely to become infected than the general population.
The UN had set 2030 as a target date for eliminating HIV/AIDS. However, in light of recent developments, the timeframe may have to be revisited. As for the Caribbean, the rising infection rate, even though concentrated in a few countries, underscores the urgent need for a greater effort, especially at the individual level, to keeping HIV/AIDS at bay through prevention.
This is definitely not the time for complacency.