This year’s World AIDS Day theme “Know your status” encourages us to be tested to know whether we are HIV negative or positive. This theme is very relevant as the world has committed to Fast Track actions towards achieving the 90-90-90 treatment targets by the year 2020. The UNAIDS 2018 Global AIDS Monitoring (GAM) report informs us that there are an estimated 310,000 adults and children living with HIV in the Caribbean, of which nearly 55,000 are unaware that they have HIV.
While many people experience anxieties when contemplating being tested, it is good to know that the majority of these will test HIV negative. What is important is those who know that they are HIV negative have an incentive to keep themselves free from HIV by adopting changes to their lives that can reduce their risk and vulnerability to HIV. The few who test positive for HIV can have immediate access to life-saving antiretroviral drugs that would enable them to enjoy a good quality life and live much longer.
The 2018 UNAIDS GAM report also helps us to understand that we still need to place 74,400 persons who are living with HIV on treatment and 103,000 are yet to achieve viral suppression, that is, having very low levels of virus in the body, even though the virus is still present.
Science and evidence show that AIDS can be defeated once we get 90 percent of people to know their HIV status, of those who are HIV positive 90 percent receive anti-retroviral drugs and are retained in care, and 90 percent of those on treatment achieve viral suppression. Once this happens, we are well on the way to achieving the end of AIDS, by 2030.
So what is stopping us from achieving these 90-90-90 targets? The biggest challenges we face are persistent judgment and unfair treatment of people living with HIV and persons belonging to key population groups such as gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender persons, sex workers, persons who use drugs, migrants and other mobile populations, and persons with disabilities. We judge persons who are different from us and we often times treat them differently. We do so because we do not take the time to understand. This year’s theme must, therefore, serve as a catalyst for increased strategic advocacy using the PANCAP Regional Advocacy Strategy 2017 and national advocacy plans for increasing political will to remove the policies and legislative barriers that obstruct people from coming forward to know their HIV status. The fear is real as people are concerned that they will be treated differently if they test positive.
We must bring into the spotlight the critical need for laboratory improvements and increased coverage in our region. We need more laboratory facilities including those led by the communities themselves to know our status. We need laboratories to confirm community-led HIV screening tests. We need laboratories and point-of-care diagnostic systems to monitor our viral loads and health care providers who are trained to provide clinical management for HIV-related illnesses.
We cannot get people tested if we do not have test kits, the right diagnostic equipment, and the right human resources. When we talk about placing 90 percent of people who are HIV positive on treatment and retaining them on treatment we must also ensure that we do not have stock-outs of key drugs. How can we be taken seriously when we encourage people to be tested and then fail to provide uninterrupted treatment? How can we fail to respond to people living with HIV when sometimes drugs are not available and people become anxious because their health care provider had stressed the importance of adherence to treatment and the impact of non-adherence on their health, including the potential for drug resistance?
If we are serious about getting people to know their status, we must move beyond the rhetoric to decisive actions to demonstrate that we understand the full implication of what it means to move someone who tests HIV positive to sustained viral suppression. We must guarantee good quality laboratory testing and laboratory services, uninterrupted treatment and monitoring within our health care system. And we must begin to tackle the reform of the justice system to enable persons who suffer discrimination to obtain redress in a timely manner. This calls for the engagement and involvement of our ministries of justice and attorneys general among others.
I call upon our governments and all who can make this happen to take the necessary actions to create an enabling environment in which people who want to know their status can come forward with the knowledge that they will not be treated differently, and that if they test positive they will be provided with the treatment, care and support they need to enjoy good quality lives and achieve viral suppression. Only then can we get them to know their status and begin the journey towards ending AIDS as a public health threat in the Caribbean.