Health official rues halt in HIV campaigns
A senior health official has argued that a hiatus in public education campaigns surrounding HIV has negatively impacted advances made locally to achieve several global targets.
In a round table interview with the Jamaica Observer ahead of World AIDS Day observed on December 1, Dr Nicola Skyers, senior medical officer in the HIV/STI/Tb unit in the Health Promotion and Protection Branch at the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW), blamed funding for the fall-off in the campaigns.
“The hiatus happened because of the availability of funding. It's not cheap to develop ads and ensure you are current. It takes a significant investment, and that was not available at the time of the fall-off,” Dr Skyers explained.
Subsequently, the pause in promotional efforts utilising media and other communication platforms resulted in a knowledge gap in younger generations regarding HIV. Dr Skyers said this has led to a greater challenge in dispelling myths around HIV and ensuring misinformation regarding the illness is reduced.
“We have to keep the awareness up, especially for a condition that has a lot of myths around it — you know, the sex with the virgin, or you can tell by looking. We know the myths and it's important to keep the message in the space, especially as you get younger people coming up. How do you not allow misinformation and myths to become reality for some persons is what we need to ensure we continuously do,” Dr Skyers said.
She added that since the hiatus the MOHW is now making deliberate efforts to re-engage, as the last Knowledge, Practice and Patient Behaviour study published in 2017 revealed a decreased in knowledge and condom use, and an increase in acceptance of the myths.
This re-engagement, according to Dr Skyers, include several campaigns and an increased use of social media to change the narrative around HIV.
“We do have a number of campaigns working on to come out, and engaging social media is a big part of that process. There is a young people thing going on now in terms of condom use,” she said in reference to the 'Dweet fi yuh best life' campaign being run by AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the ministry and National Family Planning Board.
“We are also doing one with regards to HIV testing, and there was one in 2016/2017 in terms of treatment and getting people to stay on it,” she said.
But while new campaigns are being developed, Dr Skyers said the stigma-inducing environment within which we live often trumps the efforts.
“You will remember the recent challenge an actress faced in her own space as a result of doing an HIV ad. We have to be conscious of that,” she said.
Nevertheless, Dr Skyers said it is important that gaps are not left where the campaigns are concerned.
“When you leave a gap, that's where misinformation becomes factual. It is important to keep, at regular intervals, sharing what is accurate so the inaccuracies don't become truth,” she said.
Another challenge, according to Dr Skyers, is getting teachers to have the conversation with their students.
“If you are not comfortable you will skirt around sexual issues in the curriculum. The fight has to be multifaceted. In terms of early childhood education, what is it we are saying to our children? How are we orienting them to sexual and reproductive health matters from early? At secondary school what are we saying to them? What knowledge base are they coming out of that system with?” Dr Skyers reasoned.
She further said that other environments within which people react should play their part to keep the urgency around HIV.
“How are we trying to impact parenting? If mommy and daddy don't want to talk about it, your friends will tell you something else, so how do we get parents to parent and be able to separate some of their anxiety and concerns around sex while still giving their children factual information? How do you work with the churches? Yes, they have their doctrine, but at the same time you're supposed to love everybody, even if you don't support their behaviour. Someone living with HIV, how do you welcome them in your congregation, how do you make them feel welcomed in such spaces?” Dr Skyers questioned.
“In the workplace and family... it's how do you get that enabling environment so that persons are able to access the support they need once they have such a diagnosis. If I can't have a frank conversation with you about sex, how can you assess your risk if you have misinformation or insufficient information?” Dr Skyers asked.
In addition to recognising the fight around commemorative days, Dr Skyers urged Jamaicans to drop the hypocrisy and acknowledge the challenge we face.
“As Jamaicans, we are very hypocritical when it comes to sex. We say young people are not to be having sex, there is nothing named anal sex, and all manner of things. Churches are very loud, politicians seeking their votes will influence how they interface around certain topics. Take, for example, the conversation around the buggery law and sexual and reproductive health services for persons under 16; anything that's going to butt heads is very measured and a lot of times those conversations are not had. How will we ensure we have persons willing to be bold and have conversations around sex?” Dr Skyers asked.