Despite the tremendous progress made over the last decade, a top regional official today issued a strong word of caution to Barbados
and the rest of the Caribbean that a number of gaps remain in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Regional Director of the UNAIDS support team Dr César Núñez pointed out that late diagnosis was still a major challenge, especially when it came to men.
“For the region as a whole, one in every five people diagnosed with HIV is not accessing treatment,” Núñez said, while pointing out that in 2016 one-third of those on treatment were not virally suppressed.
“That is 33 per cent. So this is like the unfinished agenda,” he said during a forum which was live streamed from St Kitts on World AIDS Day 2017.
During the event, which took place under the theme Right to Health, Everybody Counts, the UNAIDS official also reported that “for the first time in 2016 the scale tipped and more than half of all people living with HIV in the Caribbean are on anti-retroviral treatment.
“That is quite an achievement. Between 2010 and 2016 the number of AIDS related deaths in this region fell by 28 per cent. Lives are being saved,” he said.
However, he pointed out that while there has been no increase in the rate of new HIV infections over the past six years, there has been no decline either, which he said highlighted the need for “urgent attention” to the issue of prevention.
“It remains stable and we need to do more about that. We know that we cannot just treat our way to the end of AIDS. In order to close the chapter on this epidemic we must also stem the tide of new infections,” he said.
The world target is to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.
The UNAIDS official said in order for the region to realize that goal there must be greater access to education and treatment to the most vulnerable groups.
Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr Carissa Etienne said “a quantum shift” was required in the way HIV services were delivered if the goal of leaving no one behind were to be realized.
She explained that stronger and more resilient systems would have to be put in place.
“Health systems must also respond to the changing needs of those affected by the epidemic, by offering integrated people-centred services. The right to health must be realized for everyone through concerted efforts while building on the gains made over the years,” she added, while acknowledging that there had been an eight per cent decline in new infections among women between 2010 and 2016.
“Significant progress has also been made in dramatically lowering the number of children acquiring HIV through mother to child transmission all the way up to elimination in some countries and territories.
“The number of persons living with HIV who receive life saving therapy has increased more than two-fold from 70, 000 in 2010 to 162,000 in 2016, while the awareness of HIV infection has reached 64 per cent in 2016 in the Caribbean,” she added.
However, Etienne stressed that the main challenge was reaching men, with discrimination also a concern.
“So we need a clarion call to our men. We need a clarion call of the health systems in the region, the health care workers in the region, civil society in the region and other interested stakeholders to reach out to men,” she said, while pointing out that every year since 2010 more adult men have been contracting HIV.
“UNAIDS estimates an eight per cent increase for 2016, which is a worrying trend that is inconsistent with the goal of ending AIDS by 2030. We also know that many of those young adult men belong to key populations at greatest risk of HIV infection. There is no doubt that much work remains to be done. At the same time, however, I am very pleased to recognize that this World AIDS day represents a great milestone for the Caribbean,” she added.
Also addressing today’s forum, prime minister of St Kitts and Nevis Timothy Harris noted that up to 2016 about 36 per cent of people living with HIV in the region were unaware of their status.
While stressing the need for prevention strategies, Harris also pointed out that “9,400 people in our region died due to AIDS-related causes last year, while there were 18,000 new HIV infections, a level I am advised, that has remained stagnant since around 2010”.