15 new cases since January 2012, 10 deaths in five years
There were 10 new cases in 2012, the second worst year on record. Five additional cases were recorded up to September this year and 10 people have died from the disease in the past five years.
Laura Whitefield, the Health Services Authority’s HIV coordinator, said a macho taboo against using condoms was partly responsible for the longevity of the virus in Cayman. The Red Cross has also warned of a stigma against getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases and an aversion to contraception, partly fueled by religious beliefs.
Of the 116 cases recorded in the Cayman Islands since 1985, 71 have been male and 45 female. Statistics are collected for Caymanians and permanent residents only. Guest workers on permits are required to be HIV-free before they arrive on island.
In more than half of those 116 cases, the virus was transmitted through heterosexual intercourse.
Ms Whitefield, who offers free testing year round, said the recent rise in cases is concerning.
“It doesn’t have the same profile as it did previously and maybe people don’t think about it as much, but HIV is still here,” she said. “There was a big misconception in the past that this was an overseas illness. We know it is on island, and the way to deal with it is through encouraging people to use protection and to get tested.”
Carolina Ferreira, deputy director of the Cayman Islands Red Cross, said the increased numbers could be the result of an increase in testing, which would be an encouraging sign, despite the worrying headline figure.
“We need to take that into account, recognize that increased numbers of persons getting tested is a good thing and take the time to see if this will give us a better idea as to what our situation actually is in Cayman,” she said.
The Red Cross organizes the Together We Can peer education program in schools, which teaches children about safe sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
Ms Ferreira said abstinence is the only 100 percent way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but she acknowledged that is not a choice for everyone and that more education on contraception is necessary.
“Condoms in Cayman are stigmatized because they are seen as something people need to use if they are “doing something wrong” – either pre- or extra-marital sex. This has a real impact on the way young people look at condoms. A teen girl once said to me, ‘I can’t use condoms because if sex just happen, then I can be forgiven. But if I have a condom on me and then have sex, it becomes a pre-meditated sin and I can’t be forgiven for a pre-meditated sin.’”
She said that attitude is more prevalent than people might imagine.
“We have to empower people – young and older – to take responsibility for their decisions and make smarter, safer choices. Correct and consistent condom use can save lives, independently of how we may personally feel about their use,” she added.
Public health centers across Cayman have been offering free tests all week ahead of World AIDS Day on Sunday. Ms Whitefield said HIV no longer has to be a death sentence, but early detection is key.
She said some of the recent cases in Cayman had been at a very late stage by the time they were identified, meaning there was less that could be done to manage the condition.
Since 2009, 10 people have died of AIDS in Cayman – a quarter of the total number of deaths from the disease.
“We have patients who have been diagnosed for 30 years with HIV and, with the progression of the disease, it is inevitable there will be some deaths. We also have recent patients who have presented to the hospital at a very advanced stage. It’s hard to get them back to a healthy state at that point,” she added.
If the disease is detected early, advanced anti-viral medication – free to sufferers in the Cayman Islands – can help them live a long and healthy life with few restrictions.
Health Minister Osbourne Bodden said the community needed to fight the stigma and shame associated with HIV as much as the disease itself.
“HIV and AIDS is not merely a health problem, but a complex and broad challenge facing society as a whole. Caribbean countries have the highest prevalence outside sub-Saharan Africa.
“For the Cayman Islands, it is a challenge. Yet, it is still surrounded by silence. Unless this silence is broken, it will become an even greater issue. Infection rates will continue to increase and more people will become ill,” he said.
Grammy award-winning artist Estelle performed at an event at the Arts and Recreation Center in Camana Bay last Saturday to raise funds and awareness. A church service will be held at Elmslie United Church from 10:45 a.m. Sunday to mark World AIDS Day.
- Total cases of HIV (AIDS): 116 (67)
- Total this year (to September) 5 (1)
- Total deaths: 40
- Most common age at time of testing positive: 25-29
- Most common form of transmission: Heterosexual sex (57.8 percent)