By: Tony Best
Praise for Caribbean’s success in fighting HIV/AIDS infection; the need for the elimination of buggery law in several states and an appeal for greater compassion towards victims of the disease.
Those were some of the key elements of an upbeat assessment of the status of the disease, a report that’s being presented at the 19th international HIV/AIDS conference in Washington being held in Washington this week. The report is being delivered by Dr. Eddie Greene, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean.
More than 20,000 people from around the world, about 250 of them from the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago and their neighbors are in Washington D.C. for the five day meeting which began on Sunday and many of them are hearing from Dr. Greene, ministers of health, experts and NGOs from the Caribbean how the region has succeeded in reducing the numbers of deaths from HIV/AIDS, expanded treatment and changed attitudes to the disease and its victims.
“We are on a different trajectory, have a different storyline as the international conference is about to unfold,” was the way Greene, a former Assistant Secretary-General of Caricom, put it to the Carib News.
In the 30 years since the disease burst onto the global scene, the death toll has run into tens of thousands of people in the “Pan Caribbean region,” which comprises Caricom, Cuba and the Dominican Republic but like the rest of the world the area is a far way from eliminating the HIV scourge. Still, Dr. Greene was quick to laud specific states and the region as a whole for their spectacular gains in treatment, the turn-around in attitude and in reducing mother-to-child transmission. However, there is great need to change behavior, he added.
“An outstanding country in the context of treatment, prevention and care is Cuba. Its own response to the disease is a significant lesson we could learn in the Caribbean,” the expert said. “But apart from Cuba, the Bahamas has also been a very good case study in terms of the reduction in mother-to-child transmission. We have made significant strides in terms of treatment, the number of people tested and in how we have used testing as a mechanism for prevention. Besides the Bahamas, we have Barbados which has done a tremendous job of using its public health system and its public health approach to really ensure that there was almost universal access to anti-retroviral drugs. Looking at Barbados, there is a significant reduction in the number of deaths from HIV/AIDS.”
The record of the “smaller” OECS countries was just as exemplary, surpassing their larger neighbors such as the Bahamas, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in eliminating mother-to-child transmission, Dr. Greene explained.
“St. Lucia and St. Kitts-Nevis are going to be the first two countries to be certified by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization of having eliminated mother-to-child transmission," he said. “In fact, St. Lucia has not had a case of mother-to-child transmission since 2006 and St. Kitts-Nevis since 2007. These are what I call the successes of the Pan Caribbean region. We are optimistic that within the decade that if we move correctly in the Caribbean, just like we did in the 1980s when we were the first region collaborating with PAHO to have eliminated polio, present trends can lead us in the next decade to be the first region in the world to eliminate mother to child transmission of HIV. Haiti has dramatically reduced the spread over the past eight years and Guyana has done the same. But the total elimination is a good way off.”
But that’s not all. St. Kitts-Nevis and Suriname are leading the region in changing their laws relating to HIV/AIDS, a move he believes Barbados should emulate.
“They have already developed legislation, the modification of legislation to reduce stigma. Jamaica is fast following that case because they have paved the way for the removal of buggery laws in Jamaica which are really a source of discrimination,” asserted the UN envoy. “It is not that people have been prosecuted under existing law (for buggery, men having sex with men) but that it stands on the books is in itself discriminatory.”
The continued existence of buggery laws brings the issue of tolerance and gay sex into sharp focus in several countries.
“There is advocacy in some quarters for the removal of buggery laws from the books in Barbados but I am not sure there is movement as in the case of Suriname, St. Kitts-Nevis and Jamaica. Barbados no, there isn’t that movement,” Greene said. “I think Barbados should move in the direction of removing buggery laws.”
But with more and more religious institutions and groups, such as the Councils of churches in Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis and St. Lucia taking a “progressive” stance on the removal of buggery laws and coming to grips with discrimination against gay men, the road was being paved for other countries to change their laws as well, insisted the former Caricom official.
“On December 1st, the faith-based organizations in Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis and St. Lucia are converging and collaborating with the youth as well as with the ministries of health and youth (affairs) in a set of consultations in those countries on accelerating the agenda for human rights with a view to eliminating stigma and discrimination,” he went on. “Compared with 10 years ago things are changing.”
Dr. Greene recently succeeded Sir George Alleyne, a former Pan American Health Director and the current Chancellor of the University of the West Indies as the UN envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean.