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Dr. Ellis: Prevention is the answer
By Tanya Lightbourne
THE United Nations shows that the number of HIV infections has slowed considerably in the Caribbean in the last decade. However, we continue to have the second highest regional HIV prevalence after sub-Saharan Africa.
“HIV infection and AIDS are not going anywhere,” says Dr. Henrick Ellis. “This is something that Barbadians and others across the region need to recognise”.
Dr. Ellis who sat as Chairman of the National HIV/AIDS Commission during the period 2010-2011, went on to acknowledge that Barbados has seen success in terms of treatment.
He told the Barbados Advocate in a recent interview that there has been significant success, since Government has provided free treatment to people who have developed AIDS. Also, providing HIV prevention programmes for pregnant women over the last five years which has been able to cut infection rates to the newborn to just about zero.
“People are living with HIV infection even longer under treatment. However, the unfortunate thing is that we are still having new people become infected. There is an ever ‘widen’ pool of people living with infection,” he expressed.
Dr. Ellis recalled that during his time as Chairman, the Ministry of Health was able to expand its treatment to more people.
“We are faced with a situation where we are treating more people at an earlier time, so they would not become as ill and then less infectious and therefore less likely to infect others. But the drawback is if we can sustain this; in terms of cost”.
“It is shown that if HIV patients are treated before their immune system drops to very low levels, they can live longer and also they became less infectious”.
However, because Barbados’ infection rates are not falling, treatment is not the answer, stressed Dr. Ellis.
“We are not going to eradicate this condition by treatment because there is no cure; any eradication is going to be from prevention”.
“We must continue treatment to make people’s lives better. Eliminate the discrimination and take care of their needs but at the same time stop people from going in that pool. We can pledge to make the next generation HIV free – by practising Abstinence, or Being Faithful to one partner whose HIV status you know, or if the first two methods fail, using Condoms for a partner whose HIV status in unknown.....the ABC of HIV Prevention”.
“In addition, people must know that with HIV infection, if you are not careful and continue to expose yourself, you can become infected again and again. It is not like chickenpox and measles which you get once. This re-infection has tendency to damage the immune system even more, putting you to the end stage called AIDS”.
Dr. Ellis recognises the National HIV/AIDS Commission’s kiss stigma and discrimination goodbye, T-shirt campaign as not only one of his personal successes while as Chairman; but as Barbados’ success.
According to the Former Chairman, stigma and discrimination are the biggest problems we have around the world in preventing more success in the response.
“I thought we could probably try something different, something tangible in order to get people to move from this idea of stigmatising and discriminating. When you stigmatise and discriminate against infected persons they feel very self conscious and tend not to come forward. Therefore, if they are not having the necessary information and education they may continue the same risky sexual behaviour and continue to spread the infection.”
“The T-shirt – HIV POSITIVE - SHOULD IT MATTER – is saying to the rest of the world that it is not about your personal status; it is about taking a stand against stigma and discrimination. It adds the very important message ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated.’ Also you may not like someone’s lifestyle but they are still human beings, still entitled to their human rights”.
Dr. Ellis added that he is extremely happy to see more and more Barbadians wearing the t-shirt and still requesting it, especially companies and churches.
“You don’t know which one of your relatives, or even you yourself may be infected somewhere down the line. I am therefore pleased that people are understanding the message, taking a stand and seeing that HIV infection and AIDS is also really becoming like a chronic disease since people are living longer now with it than before”.