MONTEGO BAY, St James — Back on local soil after completing a Master of Science degree in Public Health and Health Promotion at England's Brunel University London, Chad Morgan is looking to utilise his wealth of knowledge to play an active role in Jamaica's fight against HIV/AIDS.
Morgan, one of last year's Chevening scholars, told the Jamaica Observer that he believes the additional focus needs to be placed on youth between the ages of 16 and 24 if Jamaica should ever achieve HIV/AIDS epidemic control.
According to Morgan, there is a recognisable gap between sexually active young people and those willing to access HIV/AIDS preventative measures. He pointed out this trend has been a worldwide cause for concern as this age group is most at risk for contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
"For about four years we have been having a steady increase in young people within that age group with new infections, which is also alarming and this is not just in Jamaica, this is happening globally. A lot of my research would have shown that in places like the United States of America and different parts of Africa, young people are also emerging with HIV," Morgan told the Sunday Observer.
Morgan believes that a "consolidated and coordinated approach" will greatly benefit Jamaica's efforts in controlling and subsequently eradicating this deadly infection. But, the scholar noted that this approach will require health professionals and educators to push past their current limits with the country's sex education curriculum.
"We have mechanisms in place to see where the virus is going to go. We can do projections and we have the professionals to do those things. I don't think we are doing enough to address them, so I want to do something that does not exist as yet. I want to see a consolidated and coordinated approach, which would be a multi-sectoral youth project that looks at the whole youth," Morgan explained.
He went on to state that this approach will provide yout with quality information regarding HIV/AIDS and its preventative measures from a very early age. While he recognises that information is already being offered to youth through the education system, Morgan told the Sunday Observer that Jamaica is "shying away from" more comprehensive sexual education programmes.
"You have to provide the children with the information, so that when they are older they know the right decisions to make and research has shown that when persons are given information, especially around sexual reproductive health at a young age, then they are more likely to make better decisions. The more information they have, the better decisions they make," he maintained.
A more targeted approach is also needed to reach and educate members of the LGBTQ community who may fall into different subcategories of the youth population, Morgan said.
"If you look into the subcategories of youth…then we will see a vast divide, so they are much more susceptible to contracting HIV and other STIs. They are also much more susceptible to violence, but there is not enough targeted work around that. The country itself, we do work with people who are transgender, but there is no serious focus on youths and that has to be addressed," he told the Sunday Observer.
Sharing that his dissertation focused on the barrier of HIV/AIDS testing for this cohort in Jamaica, Morgan said his research has shown that there is currently a distrust for health-care providers among this population. Interestingly, he added, more young people are choosing to not access health care as they believe their information won't be kept confidential.
"…The key things that come out of my research [were] stigma and discrimination and recently, I was facilitating a session with a group of young men and it came up when I asked them what they believe are barriers to them accessing testing and treatment services," he said.
"Young people do not trust the public health system. They do not trust health-care providers with their information. They believe that once they know their status, they are going to share it. This might not be necessarily true but this was borne out of my research. They do not believe that their information is safe, so they do not access the services. So even though they are having sex, they are not accessing services for their health," Morgan continued.
Additionally, it would be naïve to ignore the reality that children under the age of consent are engaging in sexual activities, he told the Sunday Observer. While there are arguably a host of reasons behind the ordeal, Morgan noted that these youngsters cannot be left to their detriment. Young children living in rural areas are also at a greater risk of engaging in unsafe sexual practices and need comprehensive sexual education programmes, he said.
"While we can argue that people in the urban areas can access this information, it is not readily available in the rural spaces. We must educate the youth. They must know that they can wait before they start having sex. They must have the mechanisms needed to protect themselves when they do start having sex, so that they can live a long and healthy life," Morgan said.
"The data also states that persons with more information tend to delay their sexual debut as well. But we encourage sexual debut as young as possible, based on how we engage in our communities, especially among young boys and if you are encouraging young boys to have sex they are going to have sex with young girls. So my challenge is we have the data but we are not acting on the data," he said.
This consolidated and coordinated approach, Morgan believes, will push Jamaica closer to ending HIV and AIDS while achieving the UNAIDS' global targets.
"Another reason I am so interested in youth is if we can stop the spread of HIV among the young population, it puts us in a much better place regarding the spread of HIV globally. It is also economical," he told the Sunday Observer, adding that though treatment is free for HIV patients, it costs the Government millions of dollars to provide health care to those living with the infection.
"If we can stop or reduce HIV transmission among young people then we will be in a much better place," Morgan said.