Cayman is offering free HIV testing for residents starting Dec. 1, which marks World AIDS Day, a campaign to raise awareness of the disease.
The Cayman AIDS Foundation and the Health Services Authority have organized free screenings at each district clinic and in the Sister Islands from Dec. 1 to Dec. 5.
Noel Cayasso-Smith, executive director of the Cayman AIDS Foundation, said the free screenings can be vital since early detection can save lives.
“The free testing falls in line with the big celebration,” said Mr. Cayasso-Smith. “Knowing your status is one of the key roles we play in treating this disease before it gets to a later stage and develops into AIDS. The earlier you’re detected, the better it is.”
According to statistics provided by the Cayman AIDS Foundation, there are 119 Cayman residents living with the HIV virus. Two new cases emerged this year, and one death as a result of the disease.
The figures do not paint an accurate picture of the total number of residents infected with the virus, said Mr. Cayasso-Smith.
He believes there are more cases that have not been brought to the attention of local healthcare providers due to stigma and confidentiality concerns.
“I think the numbers are not accurate because a lot of people go overseas to get tested, for confidentiality [purposes] …. There is no system in place where if you get tested overseas that the information will be forwarded to the [Health Services Authority] in Grand Cayman,” said Mr. Cayasso-Smith.
He asks that anyone who tested positive off island to come forward for help in getting medication that is required for illness.
The statistics show the highest rate of HIV is in the 25 to 29 age range in the Cayman Islands.
Mr. Cayasso-Smith believes the prevalence in younger adults could be due to engaging in unprotected sex as a result of lack of education about safe sex practices or excessive alcohol consumption. To encourage safe sex practices among young people, especially those engaged in high-risk behaviors, the foundation installed condom dispensers in 12 local bars last month.
Whether single, in a relationship, or married, people need to get tested regularly, he said.
“Couples should go together to get tested before having sex,” said Mr. Cayasso-Smith.
Currently, education is the foundation’s focus. Its members make frequent visits to local organizations and schools to raise awareness and to combat the stigma surrounding the virus.
“We still have a long way to go with educating people,” he said.
Once a person is diagnosed as being HIV-positive, he or she can often be in a state of denial, shock and depression.
“It’s a process you go through. I call it the denial stage. To be told you are HIV-positive, there are a lot of things going through your head. You have a lot of issues to deal with emotionally, and your family has to deal with,” said Mr. Cayasso-Smith.
People should not be afraid of getting tested because, with the increase in new medications, the virus is no longer considered a death sentence.
“Cancer kills more people at this point than HIV does, if you take your medication properly,” explained Mr. Cayasso-Smith.
For people who don’t get regular HIV tests, there is a risk of their HIV status developing into “full blown AIDS,” said Mr. Cayasso-Smith.
The stigma surrounding HIV continues to be a barrier and prevents HIV-positive patients from visiting the Cayman AIDS Foundation for financial help or emotional support.
“People just hear the words AIDS and shun away from it and anyone who has it … If they take the time to read up on it and educate themselves, they’ll see that they’re just looking like a total idiot,” said Mr. Cayasso-Smith.
In Cayman, of the 119 residents or more currently living with the disease, only 14 have sought help from the foundation.
“We’re here for you,” said Mr. Cayasso-Smith, who encourages residents with HIV to seek assistance from the foundation, which he said offers a safe, free, confidential, and non-judgmental environment.
World AIDS Day events
As well as free HIV testing, several events will be held on Monday, World AIDS Day, including a march at 2 p.m. from the Government Administration Building to Heroes Square in downtown George Town.
There will also be a HIV/AIDS awareness day held at the town hall in George Town from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at which lectures and educational programs will be delivered. A HIV/AIDS quilt will be on display, and music will be provided.
Later, there will a gathering at Heroes Square, starting at 5 p.m. with speeches and an awards ceremony. This will be followed by a candlelight vigil and a march from Heroes Square to the Elmslie Memorial United Church, where a church service will be held at 6 p.m.
For more information, visit www.caf.ky or call 924-7877.