More youth having multiple sex partners, study finds

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
Senior staff reporter
saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, May 10, 2019

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Health authorities are concerned that, despite interventions to change risky behaviours and stem the HIV infection rate, research has shown that more people in the 15-24 age group are having multiple sex partners, with the numbers rising from 58 per cent in 2012 to 65.3 per cent in 2017.

The findings have emerged in the latest Knowledge Attitude Behaviour Practice Survey conducted by the Ministry of Health among 2,000 randomly selected individuals in the 15-49 age group between August and October 2017, and involved 2,818 households.

Only 58 per cent of those with multiple partners used condoms during their last encounter at the time of the survey, and 21 per cent reported never using a condom in their last 10 sexual encounters. Over 63 per cent of those were males. Furthermore, the researchers found that just 60 per cent reported having done an HIV test in the 12 months leading up to the survey.

Speaking at the dissemination launch of the survey at Eden Gardens in St Andrew yesterday, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton said another key finding is that the knowledge of how HIV is transmitted had declined, as only 33 per cent of respondents were able to identify 100 per cent condom-use and sticking to one faithful partner as ways of preventing infection.

The ministry is particularly concerned about the persistence of stigma and discrimination, which has hampered progress in the diagnosis, treatment and care of HIV in Jamaica.

Dr Tufton lamented that stigma has been a significant hindrance to the country getting closer to the 90-90-90 target set by UNAIDS in 2014 to diagnose 90 per cent of HIV-positive individuals; provide antiretroviral therapy for 90 per cent of those diagnosed; and achieve viral suppression for 90 per cent of those treated by 2020.

“The survey revealed that accepting attitudes to persons with HIV not only remained low, but declined significantly in 2017 versus 2012. While we have made some progress in terms of the deadlines set by the UN, it's going to be difficult to achieve those targets, it's an admission that we have to come to terms with,” he said, but stressed that this is not an indication of failure.

“Rather, it is motivation for us to redouble our efforts to ensure that we take this issue on frontally, talk more about it, sensitise more, in getting stigma removed from our psyche as a people,” he said.

Noting that the country was lagging behind the UN targets related to stigma and discrimination, Dr Tufton said that public health is an ongoing progress in which the society has to confront and overcome current mindsets.

In an interview with the Jamaica Observer on the uphill battle with stigma and HIV, the health minister explained that, “It's a combination of things… part of it is because of perception and belief about how the virus is transmitted, and that's a strong issue. The other is the fear of association — guilty by association type of thing. The stigma is big; we have to get people to understand that it's an illness that we have made much progress on in terms of treatment and control. In days gone by, HIV would be a death sentence; people are [now] living 30 and 40 years with HIV, but they have to take their medication. On the prevention side we have to get people to understand responsible behaviour, and we have to get the general population to appreciate that people are normal people who are unfortunately affected.”

He said that it is for this reason that the ministry continues to reiterate and refresh its awareness and education campaign on HIV, using a multi-agency approach, and including the education sector, as the school-age population does, to a large extent, engage in sexual activities.

There are 32,000 people living with HIV in Jamaica. In 2016 there were 1,700 new infections and 1,300 AIDS-related deaths. The survey informs the ministry's HIV/AIDS intervention programme by identifying gaps and successes and gauging the impact of the programme.


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