The campaign is on once again to get Caribbean nationals to know their HIV status. And with Regional Testing Day to be held next Friday, one individual who has been living with the virus for over two decades has been sharing his story.
Addressing the recent media launch of Regional Testing Day, Ainsley Reid admitted that he struggled to come to terms with his newly-discovered positive status.
“I remember in 1992 when I was diagnosed, it took me years to come to grips with the fact that nobody ‘obeah me’; with the fact that it is not because God don’t like me; it is not because God wished to see me dead; it is not because I was evil; it is not because I’m a disgrace to my family and so on.
“I had to take a new look that this is just a virus, and I need to know how to live with this virus. So it required a new set of survival skills: how to disclose; who I need to disclose to; who I need to bring into my space to provide support for me; how to educate my wife, who is HIV negative; how do I educate my parents – my father who believes that every gay man must get killed and mustn’t come into his church; how do I educate my mom, and get my mom to understand that I was not going to die in the next year,” Reid said.
Today, the Jamaican national is the coordinator of the organization, Greater Involvement of People with HIV/AIDS (GIPA), and an advocate for testing.
“HIV testing is important because it gives one the benefit of knowing whether you are HIV positive or not. The HIV test doesn’t say anything about AIDS. It says whether you have the virus that will cause you to develop or not,” he said.
Reid’s advice comes on the heels of a report from the UN Special Envoy on HIV and AIDS to the Caribbean Dr Edward Greene, that two out of five people in the Caribbean do not know their HIV status, and less than half of the people living with the virus in the Caribbean are receiving treatment.
Reid credited a proper treatment regime, coupled with a strong support system, for helping him maintain good health over the past 25 years.
“Today, I am well-managed and stable to the point where I have undetectable viral nodes. And I also have very improved CD4 count. But it doesn’t mean that I am different from anybody else. It meant that I focused on me . . . . I am focused on taking my meds every day. For me, it signalled that I need to eat right, that I need to rest, that I [don’t] allow stigma and discrimination to impact me the way it had in the past,” he said.
Since HIV/AIDS was discovered 34 years ago, the public has become more educated about the illness. However, this education has done little to reduce the level of stigma and discrimination against infected individuals.
Reid said this was one of the main obstacles he has had to overcome since becoming HIV positive.
“In the early days, many of us experienced stigma and discrimination in the workplace, in the home, in church, in our communities, in school. Today, we still have some stigma and discrimination being experienced by people living with HIV. So there’s work still for us to do,” he said.
“Not many of us are coming forward to be involved. And I think we have to build more enabling and supportive environments so that people who get tested positive can find reason not just to know that they’re HIV positive, but to want to get involved.”
Reid stressed that proper medication is just one aspect of life with HIV. According to him, permanent access to care is another major factor in maintaining a healthy outlook on life after a positive diagnosis.
“I don’t think that many people understand that I need not just those things as well, but I need a supportive space: a home where I’m accepted, a community where I’m accepted; a workplace where I’m accepted and nobody wants to see my back going through the door but they want to see me stay in work. The more I’m enabled so that I stay in work, I can take care of my family, I can contribute to my country. So, I think it’s important for us to recognize that we, people living with HIV, need space so that we can realize those things,” he said.
One cannot tell, simply by looking at Reid, that he is HIV positive. He attributes his healthy physique to “just taking the meds and living well”.
“And living well means I eat right, I exercise, I don’t grudge, I don’t have bad mind, I don’t have bad heart. And I want you to know that those things also affect your HIV too.”
Regional Testing Day will be hosted by the Caribbean Media Alliance and the Pan Caribbean partnership against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP).