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Easier access to public health care for HIV-infected gay men

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, May 26, 2014    

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HIV-infected men who have sex with men (MSMs) now experience little or no barrier in accessing services at the island's public health facilities despite Jamaica's stringent buggery laws which criminalises the practice.

This has been made possible by the Ministry of Health which recently facilitated the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) training of some 60 health-care professionals, to sensitise them on dealing with this population.

Minister of Health Dr Fenton Ferguson told the Jamaica Observer that J-FLAG has undertaken the training of a number of health professionals across the island to sensitise them on the need to better treat with this vulnerable population.

Ferguson expressed delight that J-FLAG was able to satisfactorily complete the training programme with the health-care professionals.

"That will be very helpful, as a major concern for Jamaica is the MSMs which is now consistently showing a HIV prevalence rate of 32 per cent," Ferguson said, adding that he will be reinforcing this point when he speaks at the upcoming graduation exercise for those who benefited from the training.

Meanwhile, J-FLAG said Jamaica AIDS Support (JAS) has always operated a fully functional clinic to treat its clients, including MSMs, who shy away from the island's clinics and hospitals.

According to Brian Paul, sub-regional co-ordinator of the Caribbean Forum of the Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CariFLAGS) and advocate for J-FLAG over the last decade, agencies like JAS were empowered to do work with MSMs and transsexuals because the government's health system was not very embracing of diversity

given that there was a lot of hostility against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

"When you get to the gate security guards would turn you away and nurses and other administrative staff within the compound would have been hostile, and so a lot of LGBT people relied on NGOs like JAS to provide that clinical care," he told the Observer. "However, over the years with greater exposure and education, the health-care providers at all levels are now more knowledgeable on sexual diversity and because of that they are now more sensitive to the needs of the population, so we are seeing a lot

more LGBT people accessing health-care in the public sector," Paul said.

He noted that this has been the result of years of advocacy work.

"The national HIV programme has also done a lot to empower its staff and to train persons to be better equipped to deal with the population," he said.

He noted, however, that while the majority of health care providers at all levels are sensitive to the issues of diversity, there are some

who are still interacting with their own personal prejudices and stigma.

"So they may know very well that their jobs depend upon them being tolerant and embracing of diversity, but their own personal stigma and prejudices are still present. But with the advent of the HIV-redress system and with empowerment of NGOs, less and less are we hearing of reports of real discrimination," he said.

Paul said J-FLAG's recent training session with public health-care professionals included persons from deep rural Jamaica as well as the urban centres.

The training, he said, was necessary because some persons were still not sure how to deal with LGBT people.

"Those from the furthest rural parish said they had no idea about these issues and on the rare occasion if they had to deal with a gay or

lesbian client, they were figuring it out as they went along," he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Ferguson told the Observer that he recently had a major consultation with Pan Caribbean Partners Against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP) as well as a Global Fund official and a number of other high-level stakeholders to address the issues faced by the MSM population.

"It was a two-day consultation on justice for all which is focusing on those most-at-risk such as MSMs and sex workers," he said.

Dr Ferguson said Jamaica was able to secure US$19 million from Global Fund for its HIV programme.

Jamaica was initially expecting to receive $5 million for the transitional period 2013-2015, but as the alternate member on the Global Fund Board for Latin America and the Caribbean, Fenton said he engaged the international community about the need for upper-middle income countries to continue to receive support.

"We cannot afford to lose the gain of the last decade with HIV and so we are now in a position where we will be getting US$19 million from The Global Fund which I believe coming from US$5 million is significant," he said.

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