HIV/AIDS: Let’s beat the world to a cure

Monday, August 22, 2016

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An interview in this week’s Sunday Observer with Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, one of two scientists who discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), has given us further occasion to reflect on how Jamaica is dealing with this disease.


Data published by the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) tell us that since the start of the AIDS epidemic three decades ago, an estimated 78 million people have become infected with HIV, of which 35 million people worldwide have died from AIDS-related illnesses.


In fact, the UNAIDS statistics for last year show that 36.7 million people around the world are now living with the virus.


Locally, health officials tell us that in 2015 they recorded approximately 29,000 Jamaicans living with HIV, while the island has seen 1,200 AIDS-related deaths.


Last November, Ministry of Health officials announced that they were confident that the island would meet the UNAIDS 90–90–90 treatment target by the year 2020.


The ministry also reported that seven in 10 people living with HIV in Jamaica know their HIV status. In addition, they said that new HIV infections have decreased by 50 per cent since 2000, and the country has achieved a 46 per cent decline in AIDS-related deaths as well as an eight per cent decline in the rate of HIV transmission from mothers living with HIV to their babies.


That is indeed encouraging news, especially when placed against the backdrop of the fact that with all the research over the past 33 years, scientists have been unable to find a cure for HIV/AIDS.


Professor Barré-Sinoussi, though, believes that scientists have made steady progress, given the development of antiretroviral treatment which, UNAIDS states, is being accessed by 17 million of the people globally who are living with AIDS.


"We know that the combination of treatment is permitting the patient to live with HIV and to have a life expectancy which is similar to people who are not infected by HIV, so this is wonderful progress," Professor Barré-Sinoussi told the Observer during the International AIDS Conference held recently in Durban, South Africa.


Proof of that lies in the fact that AIDS-related deaths dropped to 1.1 million in 2015 compared to two million in 2005.


But even as we acknowledge that, we cannot rest on our laurels, as there are still too many people affected by this virus. Our health officials, who are already doing a great job of public education and providing support and treatment, need to redouble efforts to staunch the spread of this disease.


At the same time, every Jamaican has a duty to ensure that they engage in responsible sexual behaviour, because personal choices do have consequences.


In addition, the Government ought to look carefully at how much it allocates to the health sector, particularly as it relates to HIV/AIDS research, because local scientists may just be the ones to find a cure for this disease.


Think of the impact such a discovery would have on our health sector and the economy in general. This is not a far-fetched pipe dream. If we can beat the world in track athletics, we can do so in finding the cure for this dreaded scourge.

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