The jury is still out on the origins of HIV/AIDS, in terms of whether it was a naturally occurring virus or created in a laboratory in a sinister attempt at population control for certain races. Either way, the world first became aware of it in 1981 as a “new” sexually transmitted disease for which there was no cure and one which primarily affected homosexual males and intravenous drug users who shared needles.
It gained greater prominence in 1985 when veteran actor Rock Hudson, a closeted homosexual, succumbed to it, and one of his friends, the now late actress Elizabeth Taylor, helped to establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research, one of the first organizations set up to look after patients as well as to do research aimed at finding a cure for the disease.
Barbados recorded its first case in 1985 as well, but many Barbadians did not take it seriously. To them, it was a gay man’s disease and their belief was that once they were not of that persuasion, “it can’t happen to me”. Some even saw it as divine punishment for sinful sexual activity, until we realized that women and babies could contract it as well.
Nevertheless, Barbados got on board quickly, and by the end of the decade, we had established the National Advisory Committee on AIDS, which immediately set to work educating Barbadians about the disease and keeping them up to date on the number of new infections and deaths. The committee also had an effective public service announcement campaign with the tagline, “Be aware and be careful”. Those advertisements stressed the importance of getting tested, reassuring Barbadians that their results would be kept confidential; abstinence or remaining faithful to one partner; and protecting oneself during sex.
Three decades later, where are we? We have made some significant strides in combating HIV/AIDS. Barbadians have access to all the testing methods, tests are either free of cost or reasonably priced, and patients receive their medications without any difficulty. Recently, Dr Godfrey Xuereb, the Resident Representative for the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, announced that the geographical area which falls under his responsibility had eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS and congenital syphilis. What has made this even more significant is that only 20 years ago, we had the second highest incidence in the world.
On the other hand, though, there have been some developments that indicate we might not be taking it as seriously as before. In 2011, we closed our lone hospice for terminally-ill AIDS patients, the Elroy Phillips Centre, and never opened a replacement. The international agencies who assisted with funding HIV/AIDS campaigns all over the world have slashed their budgets, the Regional Testing Day at which people could get free HIV tests has been off the calendar for the last two years, and one of the main fundraisers for the HIV/AIDS Food Bank, Love, Poetry and Song, was also cancelled this year owing to a lack of funds.
The first chairman of the National Advisory Committee on AIDS, Sir Errol ‘Mickey’ Walrond, during a symposium held just over a year ago, lamented the fact that HIV/AIDS seemed to have “gone off the radar”. He stated: “We know the costs of treating HIV are ballooning, because it is expensive to keep patients on a treatment regimen, and when you add new patients, it increases the costs further. With an absence of up-to-date figures and analysis of those figures, we do not have an accurate picture of how we stand.”
At the time he spoke, the most recent available statistics for Barbados dated back to 2013, but when Sir Errol was on board, new figures came out at least three times a year. Beyond that, he said while the committee under his watch did a lot to end stigma and discrimination in the health care sector, “it is still a problem in society as a whole that needs to be addressed, as it prevents people from seeking help once they have been diagnosed HIV-positive”.
Recently, in addressing a forum on HIV/AIDS for people over 50 years of age, Minister of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs Cynthia Forde noted that people in that age group were not getting tested, either because their doctors did not think they needed it or because of the stigma associated with the disease. But new infections were highest in the 50-54 age group.
Lest we forget, today’s seniors were the ones who felt “it couldn’t happen to them” when HIV/AIDS first surfaced three decades ago, especially since they did not fit into the so-called target group.
The reality is, HIV/AIDS has not gone away, and apart from the older people, especially males, who might be running away from testing, there is a new generation that has grown up hearing about the disease but probably does not understand all the vagaries of it. And with more young people experimenting with potentially harmful sexual practices, it is time to put the message out there again, more forcefully: “Be aware, be careful, and kiss stigma and discrimination goodbye.”