For people who are HIV positive, the condition of their lives often comes down to one very important factor – the support of the community, or lack thereof.
The support provided by family members, friends, healthcare providers and the wider community is so important that the World Health Organization has dubbed this year’s theme as ‘Communities make the difference’. Here in Cayman, it is no different.
Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV Programme Coordinator of the Health Services Authority Laura Elniski said when it comes to the well-being of those living with HIV/AIDS in Cayman, the role of the community cannot be understated.
“If they [those living with HIV] are fully supported, they can live a long and happy life,” said Elniski. “If they aren’t, they can end up living very sheltered. Here in Cayman we are taking the World Aids Day theme even further. For us it’s ‘Communities make the difference. Take action, be the difference.’”
Elniski’s sentiments are echoed by the Cayman AIDS foundation. In a statement published on its website, CAF says, “Working together as a community means empowering and enabling all people, everywhere, to access the services they need.”
Each year, World AIDS Day is held on 1 Dec. To mark the occasion in Cayman, the HSA offered free HIV testing across all the districts on all three islands during the last week of November.
“This year, 30 people took up the free tests,” said Elniski. “While it’s a drop in the numbers we normally see each year, we suspect it might be because more people are making use of the free weekly HIV testing that occurs on each Tuesday.”
The World Health Organization estimated that 37.9 million people were living with HIV in 2018, with 1.7 million new HIV infections occurring globally each year.
In the Caribbean, between 350,000 and 500,000 people are believed to be living with HIV/AIDS. During 2018, Cayman recorded eight new cases of HIV and three new cases of AIDS. As of the end of September 2019, six people were newly diagnosed with HIV this year and there were two new cases of AIDS.
Although there was a drop in the number of new cases between 2018 and 2019, Elniski says there is an overall increase in the numbers.
A breakdown of the latest HIV/AIDS statistics by age group reveals there are two females between the ages of 15-19, one male between 25-29, six males and one female between 30-34, five males and one female between the ages of 35-39, three males and three females between 40-44, eight males and two females between 45-49, four males and three females between the ages of 50-54, 13 males and four females between the ages of 55‑59 and five males and 12 females 60 and older.
When added up, there is a total of 73 people living with HIV in Cayman, and 23 of those have been diagnosed with AIDS.
The first recorded case of HIV/AIDS in Cayman was identified in 1985. Since then, the HSA has recorded 169 cases of HIV and 81 cases of AIDS.
There are four primary vectors by which HIV can be transmitted: blood, semen, vaginal secretion and breast milk.
Elniski said Cayman has made great strides to help improve the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS, especially mothers.
“Here in Cayman we have eliminated the transmission of HIV from mother [to infant] via breast milk,” she said. “Another area of progress is the availably of antiretrovirals. People who [live] with HIV can take their pills once a day.”
She said a great deal of ignorance and common misperceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS have been cleared up in recent years, and now efforts focus on helping to strengthen community support.
“We have come a long way with raising awareness about how HIV is spread,” she said. “But what we want is for people to understand how they can support their family members who are living with HIV.”
Although a feasible cure might still be a long way off, CAF remains hopeful that the “AIDS epidemic” can be brought to an end by 2030.
In its statement, CAF said, “Cayman World AIDS Day 2019 is an opportunity to harness the power of social change, to put people first and close the gap.”
The statement continued, “Ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 is possible, by working together as a community and allowing people access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services.”
The fight to find a cure
In March this year, British doctors announced that a London man had been cured of HIV via stem cell treatment.
The research, published in Nature, a British multidisciplinary scientific journal, say doctors claim to have successfully treated an unidentified man who was previously diagnosed with HIV.
According to the journal, this is the second such cure to have occurred. Ten years earlier, a German man had been treated successfully, using the same method.
While medications are available that can help to lower the number of HIV cells in a person’s body to the point where they is virtually undetectable, there is no known cure that has been mass produced.