On Monday Minister of Health John Boyce announced the expansion of Government’s HIV Treat All initiative that was launched back in March to provide antiretroviral therapy to every patient living with HIV/AIDS in Barbados.
The development is a big boost in the local fight against the epidemic, as only infected pregnant women and persons in the latter stages of the dreaded disease for which there is still no cure, previously had access to antiretroviral drugs.
These drugs have saved million of lives worldwide.
The control of HIV/AIDS depends on potent medications. Antiretroviral drugs have radically changed the face of this disease, previously thought to be a death sentence, greatly improving the patients’ health and reducing the risk of transmitting new infections.
It is an approach that is strongly endorsed by UNAIDS, which reported on World AIDS Day this year that “more than 18 million people are on lifesaving treatment, and country after country is on track to virtually eliminate HIV transmission from mother to child”.
“With access to treatment, people living with HIV are living longer. Investing in treatment is paying off,” said Executive Director of the United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS Michel Sidibé.
Barbados has already been reaping positive results from the near nine-month HIV Treat All programme, having virtually eradicated mother-to-child transmission.
Mr Boyce was equally optimistic that the move to expand treatment would yield further achievements.
“Specifically, it will maintain the low rates of HIV illness and deaths, but we want to see further acceleration of the decline in HIV transmission rates that we have been experiencing,” he said.
Latest data from UNAIDS shows that Barbados has 2,600 people living with HIV.
In addition, 100 people died of HIV/AIDS in 2015 and there were 200 new infections.
We laud the authorities for these accomplishments and aver that the expansion of antiretroviral treatment should further drive the island towards achieving the UNAIDS 90:90:90 target for testing, treatment and viral suppression by 2020 – 90 per cent of all people living with HIV knowing their status; 90 per cent of infected people receiving sustained antiretroviral therapy; and 90 per cent of all people getting antiretroviral therapy having viral suppression.
However, for the HIV Treat All programme to successfully contribute to the bigger goal of achieving an HIV-free country, authorities must continue to spread the message far and wide that prevention is better than cure.
A clear signal must be sent to the public that making antiretroviral treatment available for every patient is not a licence to indulge in risky behaviour that exposes them to contracting the virus.
Behavioural change remains the most effective tool for keeping HIV/AIDS at bay.
Admittedly, authorities have seemingly been getting that message across, based on the latest statistics, and now is a good time to intensify awareness campaigns and target at-risk groups.
Like the minister pointed out, the HIV Treat All initiative is an expensive undertaking.
However, we support Boyce’s contention that it is worth the investment. Government provides equally significant care for patients who have diabetes, kidney disease and cancer, so why not HIV/AIDS?
It cannot be said enough that prevention is the most important way to attack the disease, but the fact is that treatment matters too. We cannot cure infected patients, but we can give them a chance to still live happy, productive lives and make a contribution to society.
Equally, infected patients should not be afraid or ashamed of seeking treatment and family members, friends and neighbours should support patients’ efforts to live their best lives.