UNAIDS regional director urges Jamaica to address gaps in HIV response

Regional director of the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Dr Richard N Amenyah is urging the Jamaica Government, non-governmental organisations, and the private sector to assess and address gaps in Jamaica’s HIV response in order to not renege on efforts made to improve care in the area.

Speaking at Health Connect Jamaica’s (HCJ) inaugural dinner and awards banquet at the AC Marriott Hotel in New Kingston recently, Dr Amenyah lauded the Jamaican Government for its response to HIV/AIDS over the years, but also called for more hands on deck to address the HIV epidemic.

“People living today [with HIV] are excited, the people who gave testimony said that because of you they have a life to live. You need to celebrate…I know what it is when you have HIV ravaging communities…When the world comes together there is nothing we cannot do. We can change this world when we come together and the world united against one disease — AIDS. We need more hands on deck to be able to get this done and get this done effectively and efficiently.

“Collectively look at our roles. Why do we still have gaps in our HIV responses? The Global AIDS strategy tells us that inequalities, inequities are the biggest challenge that we have. We are not able to reach people…When I hear patients celebrating their providers — doctors, nurses, lab scientists — be proud of yourself. You go above the call of duty, you have compassion, you are dedicated to the work. Patients have said you have helped, you are accessible, and when you have challenges, you reach out. The key things coming out for patients is quality care,” Dr Amenyah said.

The UNAIDS regional director further encouraged the Government to continue pumping resources into the HIV response, citing global and regional statistics which indicate that without individual country’s government support, the task is harder.

For fiscal year 2022/23, the Government is spending $1 billion on the National HIV/AIDS Response in Jamaica Project.

“Every minute one person dies of AIDS. In an hour, you can imagine how many people have died. Every two minutes a young woman gets infected with HIV. As I speak today we have 28 million people who survive. Twenty-eight million people would have died without global support, without you rolling up your sleeves and playing your role as a provider. Because of you there are Jamaicans who are sleeping, there are Jamaicans who have gained weight, there are Jamaicans whose mental health is much better now. You are changing lives and this is why I say you have a job on your hands,” Dr Amenyah said.

He added: “We have eight more years to go with the UN targets. The UNAIDS published the global aids report in Montreal. When I see that report I think: What else can I do to ensure the global AIDS response gets back on track? The report tells us that the global AIDS response is not going well. In the Caribbean there are 92,000 people waiting to go on treatment or get diagnosed. In Jamaica you have about 15,000 people yet to be put on treatment. As I speak, South Africa has about 5.4 million people on treatment. Think about it, 5.4 million people taking medicines every day. The South African Government spends over $2.5 billion annually to keep its people alive. For most African countries, it’s not the Government that has paid. It’s the Global Fund, it’s PEPFAR [United States President Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]. And so we are saying the HIV response will not be sustainable if others are paying for you and the governments are not paying for you.”

In the meantime, Professor Minerva Thame, dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, who brought greetings on behalf of The UWI, Mona, Principal Professor Dale Webber said two main areas of HCJs achievements that bring great satisfaction to The UWI include reaching underserved communities and islandwide coverage.

“Health Connect Jamaica excels at serving the unserved communities and those who live with HIV. These individuals are an under-represented community who we are finally getting a chance to relate to in a better way. The implementation of the online risk assessment and private doctor appointment system has removed the fear of many clients who are hesitant to access HIV services as they do not want their confidential information being disclosed nor having to wait extended periods in the public facilities. Fear of stigma and discrimination can inhibit health-seeking behaviour and can be a major obstacle for timely diagnosis. HCJ has removed this stigma and discrimination and continues to create opportunities by levelling the playing field for those living with HIV to live normal lives, mentally and physically,” Professor Thame said.

She added: “There is always the false concept that because UWI is located in Kingston it is a city university. No, The UWI is a regional university. The HCJ project has advanced into a national coverage with partners all over the island. Having demonstrated this wide deliverance, what will bring the UWI more satisfaction is if we could implement the project regionally to the other countries where UWI has its footprints. I encourage our partners to evaluate the potential of this implementation.”

Director of the network Dr Geoffrey Barrow, in highlighting the reason behind the initiative stated, “HCJ was developed as a response to the rapid expansion of treatment access required to control the HIV epidemic in Jamaica. We wanted to focus on providing options for clients to choose where they wish to access health services as this is critical if we wish to see engagement, retention, and quality.”

Barrow also stated that the network has achieved exponential growth since its inception and has continued to double the number of clients it serves every year, “We [HCJ and its partners] really see the need for a continuous expansion in the treatment and care of HIV.”

The dinner and awards ceremony, hosted under the theme ‘Celebrating Innovation and Achievement’, highlighted the network’s successes in Jamaica and acknowledged the stakeholders who have worked to provide fast, private, and affordable access to HIV treatment and care services.

Health Connect Jamaica (HCJ), an initiative formulated through a 2019 partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Faculty of Medical Sciences (FMS) at The UWI, Mona, in just two years of operations has significantly expanded access to HIV treatment and care services through Jamaica’s private sector.

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