World AIDS Day 2009

Jamaica joins the rest of the world on December 1, 2009 to commemorate World AIDS Day, which has been observed globally on that date every year since 1988. We have come a far way since then in educating and sensitizing our people about the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. This year the general theme is simply Universal Access to Human Rights. This is important as we still have miles to go especially in tackling one of the biggest problems we face – stigma and discrimination. It is fitting therefore that this year’s theme for our local observance is “Yes I can…support someone living with HIV/AIDS”. This statement is a call for action geared at improving attitudes and behaviour towards persons living with HIV/AIDS. We have seen improvements in this regard as our latest study carried out in 2008 indicates that 82.8% of Jamaicans said they were willing to care for a family member who becomes sick with the virus. This is an improvement on the 2004, figures when the result was 78%. There is an intrinsic link between universal access and human rights and HIV discrimination is a barrier to persons accessing treatment, care and support. Discrimination also blocks access to prevention services for those in our population who are most-at-risk. We have to continue our drive to change the thinking and behaviour of our people in this regard.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend the National HIV/STI programme and all our partners for all the work they have been doing and the initiatives that have been undertaken thus far to combat stigma and discrimination. This included a very successful campaign featuring Ainsley Reid and Annesha Taylor who disclosed their HIV status publicly. This year our launch of World AIDS Day on November 24, 2009 was coupled with the launch of our new mass media anti stigma campaign which will feature two new persons living with HIV/AIDS. Many of us are already aware of Rosemarie Stone who published a book through which she disclosed her HIV status to the public. The campaign will also feature Jason Richards, a young man living with the disease. I thank these persons who were bold enough to step forward and become advocates for this very important cause. It is my hope that this will touch as many persons in our society as possible so that they understand that persons living with this disease should not be treated unfairly. Support to people living with HIV comes in many forms. All you need to do is help them access their basic rights by treating them as you would wish to be treated. We ensure the protection of the basic human rights of people living with HIV by allowing them to get on with their lives without the fear of discrimination from family members, friends, co-workers, health workers and even from another person living with the disease.

The government has been doing a lot of work to ensure the protection of the rights of persons living with HIV/AIDS. Cabinet approved the National HIV/AIDS Workplace Policy in 2008 with recommendations for changes. One major change recommended by the Joint Select Committee of Parliament who considered the Green Paper, is that HIV and AIDS should be treated like any other chronic illness. People are living longer with access to antiretroviral treatment. The document was tabled in parliament on November 11, 2009.

The International Labour Organisation in its Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work recommended that HIV/AIDS be recognised as a workplace issue. This is also based on the notion that HIV/AIDS should be treated in the workplace like any other chronic illness. For this reason, the special joint parliamentary committee recommended that the Ministry of Labour and Social Security promote its Policy on Life Threatening Illnesses along with the National Workplace Policy on HIV/AIDS.

The Joint Select Committee of Parliament is also recommending support for all the strategies outlined in the national workplace policy to support its objectives. These include the amendment of relevant legislation and enactment of new legislation. Some other recommendations include: (1) sensitization and dissemination of information about the policy, (2) involvement of persons living with HIV in designing and implementing the workplace programme, (3)establishing an appropriate environment for provision of confidential pre and post test counseling with access to referral for voluntary counseling and testing, (4) strengthening of social support schemes and benefits to include provision for HIV and AIDS and (5) integrating HIV/AIDS issues of prevention, treatment, care and support into existing training and office-based staff development and other human resources development initiatives. The Ministry is also moving towards an institutional approach to reducing the level of stigma and discrimination. This includes sensitizing Primary and Secondary school students through the Ministry of Education’s Health & Family Life Education curriculum, with support from the Global Fund. Currently, the Ministry of Education is in 60% of Primary & Secondary schools with the intention of rolling out this curriculum in 100% of schools by 2010.

We have made ARV treatment available to persons free of cost but we have more work to do in this area because of the over 6,000 persons needing ARV, just 4,500 of them are actually on treatment. A recent study that was undertaken in Jamaica shows that 27% of persons reported the lack of food as the main reason for missing their ARV treatment. This could threaten the effectiveness of the treatment programme. Through the Global Fund Round 7 Grant we are putting in place an initiative to provide financial assistance to persons living with and affected by HIV/AIDS in low income communities. It will cater to the self identified social support needs of these persons in order to improve economic well-being and sustain reliable sources of income.

World AIDS Day provides us with another opportunity to call for zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind and in particular HIV-related discrimination. I therefore urge everyone to treat another person as you would wish to be treated. Join the national HIV/AIDS response by saying, “Yes, I can support someone living with HIV.

Hon. Rudyard Spencer, O.D., M.P.

Minister of Health