Many of us have come into contact with HIV/AIDS by now – maybe you have the disease yourself or have experienced it through friends and family. Decades after the condition was first identified, the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to bear a heavy burden on the Caribbean islands we call our home but known to others as luxurious getaways. It is this popularity among foreigners that many experts feel introduced this deadly disease to our islands. Although tourism is a staple to the economic development of the Caribbean, it brings with it, risky sexual activities.
In addition to tourism, there are several factors (of which we have some influence) that contribute to the alarming rates of HIV infection in the Caribbean. These include :
Homosexuals engaging in heterosexual activities, due to the fact that homosexuality is frowned upon and often denied.
- Sexual activities in prison and the lack of availability of condoms to prisoners.
- Alcohol and drug abuse.
- Commercial sex workers (i.e. “rent-a-dreads, prostitutes, etc.).
- Multiple sexual partners and failure to use condoms.
While the HIV/AIDS statistics for Jamaica is not nearly as high as the Caribbean islands of Haiti and the Dominican Republic (regions affected the most by HIV/AIDS), the numbers are still staggering. There were an estimated 20,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, with just under 1000 deaths due to AIDS in 2001. In 2001, more than 5,000 orphans have lost their mother or fathers to AIDS. For the latest facts and figures, visit the National AIDS committee website
Many people do not develop any symptoms when they first become infected with HIV and are said to be asymptomatic. However, some people may have flu-like illnesses (a month or two after HIV infection), with many of the following symptoms: fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes, joint pain, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and rash. These symptoms may disappear after a few weeks and are often dismissed as routine cold or flu.
Severe symptoms may not appear until years after HIV infection. The frequency of skin problems and mouth ulcers will increase. In addition, patients may experience the following symptoms:
- Fatigue or lack of energy.
- Unexplained weight loss
- Frequent yeast infections (oral or vaginal).
- Persistent skin rashes or flaky skin.
- Fevers and sweats.
Treatment and Prevention
Although HIV is a lifelong condition (there is currently no cure), there are highly effective drug-cocktails and anti-retroviral treatments available that can extend life and quality of life. The harsh reality for treatment in Jamaica (and the rest of the Caribbean) is that these drugs are expensive and difficult for many to afford and may not even be available in rural areas. However, generic forms of these drugs are available, making it possible for more people to afford and access treatment.
But even with the availability and accessibility of treatment, why are many individuals infected with the virus not coming forward for necessary treatment? The stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, that it is a gay disease, lead many to basically ignore their condition, lie about it and not seek proper treatment. Unless society at large stops treating those suffering from the disease as pariahs, there will be many who will die prematurely.
“Prevention is better than cure.” This statement cannot be any truer, especially since there are currently no cures for HIV. The only way to prevent being infected with HIV is to avoid sharing needles and having unprotected sex. Prevention also means educating our children, friends and family members about HIV/AIDS. Prevention means testing pregnant women and treating those infected with HIV, to prevent the transmission to their babies. Prevention means providing condoms to prison inmates.
Really, the only way to protect yourself is to know the facts.
Find out more about HIV/AIDS