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Prof Bain's testimony betrayed CHART's mission

DR CAROLYN GOMES

Sunday, May 25, 2014    

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On behalf of over 30 diverse civil society groups across the region, the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition salutes the administration of the University of the West Indies (UWI) for preserving the university's ability to continue to be a leader in the regional response to HIV, by insisting that those who lead its HIV initiatives are accountable to its principles and are advocates of sound public health.

In a release last Tuesday, UWI made clear the reason it terminated its contractual arrangement with our colleague, retired Professor Brendan Bain, to direct its Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Centre Network (CHART).

"Professor Bain has lost the confidence and support of a significant sector of the community which the CHART programme is expected to reach, including the loss of his leadership status in PANCAP, thereby undermining the ability of this programme to effectively deliver on its mandate," the UWI said.

The university's communiqué noted:

* "The majority of HIV and public health experts believe that criminalising men having sex with men and discriminating against them violates their human rights, puts them at even higher risk, reduces their access to services, forces the HIV epidemic underground thereby increasing the HIV risk. These are the positions advocated by the UN, UNAIDS, WHO, PAHO, the international human rights communities and PANCAP (The Pan Caribbean Partnership against AIDS)."

* "In a high-profile case in Belize in which Caleb Orozco, a gay man in Belize, challenged the constitutionality of an 1861 law that criminalises men having sex with men...Professor Brendan Bain provided a statement on behalf of a group of churches seeking to retain the 1861 law."

* "Many authorities familiar with the brief presented believe that Professor Bain's testimony supported arguments for retention of the law, thereby contributing to the continued criminalisation and stigmatisation of MSM."

We are deeply troubled that public perception and reporting by responsible media houses continues to indicate that Professor Bain was fired as a professor, and that this was for factual statements about the epidemiology of HIV. We also note that our colleague Professor Bain provided his expert testimony not at the request of the State but a group of churches who intervened in the case in a way that has painfully polarised rational discourse about sexuality and citizenship across the Caribbean region.

We thank retired Professor Brendan Bain, with whom many of us once worked productively and collegially, for his acknowledged contributions to fighting HIV in the region, and we reaffirm our respect for his freedom to express his personal views in academic and other settings.

It is not his right to have deeply held views that has been at issue, but the evident conflict of his action to rob some of justice and equality before the law with his capacity to represent UWI's values in leading an HIV movement working for health and justice for all.

The university has been careful to note the hurt Professor Bain's advocacy has done to gay and lesbian persons in the Caribbean. But that should not be misconstrued. His dismissal is no victory of anyone over anyone else. There is one Caribbean in which we all find ourselves -- those who supported Professor Bain; and the diverse groups who engaged Caricom, UWI and others that his continued leadership had become untenable and was damaging the university -- a Caribbean we are committed to building.

We share with the university a commitment to inclusion of everyone, in law, in health, in dignity. We are pleased that these principles have won over the notion of a region where some people's humanity is inconvenient to others.

Professor Bain spoke no inconvenient truth in his testimony. The fact that men who have sex with men have significantly higher rates of HIV is widely known and acknowledged, and one reason for an urgent and more unified regional response.

Where our colleague Professor Bain erred was in practising junk science before the court, primarily:

1) by linking without evidence those high HIV rates to the removal of laws that criminalise homosexuality in France, The Netherlands and United States, while ignoring that neither laws nor Jamaica's notorious hostility to homosexuality have protected us from having one of the highest rates of HIV infection among men who have sex with men in the world; and

2) by using his expert status to aver, with no effort at providing factual support, that the sexual repertoire of men who have sex with men is characterised by activities involving fisting, faeces and urine, in distinction to vaginal sex and petting that characterises heterosexuals.

As another colleague and epidemiologist Chris Beyrer wrote in the Jamaica Gleaner last year, "People who are afraid and feel threatened avoid health care, do not seek or get HIV testing or other services which can help reduce risks, and are less likely to be treated for HIV if they are living with the virus. Punitive and hostile policies do not reduce HIV risks -- they increase them."

There is broad public health consensus that, rather than retaining laws that punish some and increase HIV risks, we make the region safer for all by "making condoms and lubricants widely available and cheap, by treating STI in settings of dignity, safety, and quality of care, so that people at risk will seek and use the services they need. We also do so by listening to patients, being non-judgemental, and helping them reduce their real risks -- which they will not disclose if they are afraid."

Professor Bain not only undermined this position in his testimony, he did so in ways that damaged the university's reputation, lacked professional forethought, and betrayed the mission of the UWI unit he was asked to lead -- "to strengthen the capacity of national health-care personnel and systems to provide access to quality HIV & AIDS prevention, care, treatment, and support services for all Caribbean people".

We need strong, credible UWI leadership in the regional epidemic. Keeping our colleague Professor Bain in that leadership role would cost us all.

Dr Carolyn Gomes is executive director of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition

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