Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : February 22nd 2017 Contents tobagotoday.co.tt February 22 - 2017
Education is the key to
stopping HIV stigma
This article is the first of a three-part series on health issues in Trini-
dad and Tobago, primarily on diseases that can have a significant im-
pact on our population. This week, we look at HIV/AIDS awareness.
Last week's news that five students in the nation's
schools tested positive for HIV (the Human Immunode-
ficiency Virus) was met with concern, perhaps fear, and
a range of other emotions. These were expressed widely
across social media, and became public discourse in the
days following the reports, which stemmed from a Joint
Select Committee (JSC) meeting. For those who may not
have been following the issue closely, the news was dis-
closed in a Ministry of Education report, which stated
that the five-three girls and two boys-in unidentified
primary schools in this country tested HIV-positive.
Most of us already know the more common facts about
HIV. It's the virus that's contracted from an infected per-
son, typically, but not exclusively, through sexual activity.
It is transmitted via the transfer of bodily fluids, especial-
ly semen, vaginal fluids, blood and breast milk, but not
saliva. It follows that it can also be transmitted by pregnant
mothers to their offspring before, or after birth, due to
Infected persons can develop Acquired Immunodeficien-
cy Syndrome (AIDS), the most advanced stage of an HIV
infection. However many people with well-managed HIV
don't develop the disease, especially when it is controlled
using antiretroviral drugs.
Despite the advances in healthcare used to treat the
disease, last week's events suggest that there is still, how-
ever, a stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, a stigma that has
continued since the 1980s when little was known about
the emerging HIV epidemic. This challenge is faced by
people who are HIV-positive in countries across the world.
They can be socially avoided or unfairly discriminated
against. They can be isolated from friends, colleagues and
family members who refuse to be in contact with an affect-
This stigma can take an emotional toll on someone who
is confirmed to be HIV-positive, making them feel mar-
ginalised and lonely, especially at a point where they'll
most need the support. It propagates a fear of the disease
that can make a person fear seeking treatment for the
disease, which can lead to a deterioration in their health.
It can also make people fear being tested, which might
confirm that they're infected.
In Trinidad and Tobago, UNAIDS statistics for 2015
suggest that there are around 11,000 people in Trinidad
and Tobago living with HIV. This represents a dip in fig-
ures-which previously held steady between 14,000 - 15,000
since 2009, from a high of 29,000 people in the mid 2000s.
In 2012, the country recorded close to 1,300 new infections.
And in 2015, 20 per cent of the new infections occurred
in females ages 15-25, while another 14 per cent came from
boys of the same age group.
But in Tobago, there are many groups and organisations
working to reduce the stigma of HIV/AIDS, as well as the
spread of the virus by creating awareness about the caus-
es of the disease-including sexual abuse, risky sexual
behaviour and mother-to-child transmission. The Friends
of Tobago AIDS Society (FOTAS) is one such organisation,
which raises awareness, encourages people who have any
doubts about their status to get tested, and assist those
who have contracted the virus so they can live a relative-
ly normal life, while they have also collaborated with the
Due to the vulnerability of the Under-25 demographic,
schools are also a target. The Division of Education, Inno-
vation of Energy, and its predecessor, the Division of Edu-
cation Youth Affairs, have over the years introduced ini-
tiatives, such as the HIV Caravan, which has been
educating students in primary and secondary schools about
the virus, how it is spread, and also how to remove the
stigma and resultant discrimination faced by those who
are HIV positive. They do this through interactive sessions
that involve interactive storytelling and drama and other
activities that will not only catch the attention of students,
but educate them as well.
In the end, education is the best way to battle both the
disease and the stigma. It would ensure that more people
who are at risk of contracting HIV will get tested, and then
treatment if necessary. It would also remind people like
the five children-who have all confirmed to have contract-
ed the virus at birth, not through sexual activity-that life
isn't over; their quality of life can be improved with the
right support. And, if we are diligent enough, over time,
it can also help us to eradicate the spread of HIV.
Department of Information
Office of the Chief Secretary
Tobago House of Assembly
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Goodwood High School students listen to the negative
effects of illegal drugs from a narcotics officer.
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