Spreading awareness about the importance of HIV testing and ending the social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS are priorities of the V.I. Department of Health, the department’s prevention and care director, Gary Smith, said on Thursday, World AIDS Day.
Each year on Dec. 1, communities around the world remember those who have been lost to AIDS and show support to those who live with the syndrome caused by the HIV virus.
"We’re doing well in terms of combating the disease but we need to be better," Smith said in an interview with the Source before two World AIDS Day ceremonies planned for both V.I. districts Thursday evening.
The Health Department hosted a candlelight vigil and symbolic balloon release on St. Thomas as well as a vigil and march on St. Croix to observe the day, whose 2016 theme was “Leadership, Commitment, Impact."
The USVI continues to rank high in the nation in HIV/AIDS cases per capita, Smith said, but new treatments are improving the quality of life and survival rate of AIDS patients.
According to a 2014 Health surveillance report, the Virgin Islands had the third highest rate of people living with HIV of any state or territory under the U.S. flag at the end of 2012.
"The disease is now a chronic disease. It’s not like before when it initially arrived when it was considered a ‘kiss of death,’" Smith said. "We have patients that now only take one pill per day, as opposed to the upwards of 20 pills needed to manage the disease in the past."
Treatment of HIV patients often aims for "viral suppression" or the invisibility of the infection in blood tests. Although this doesn’t mean the patient is cured, transmission to others is unlikely once this goal is achieved.
Smith said more than 60 percent of HIV/AIDS patients treated at Health’s clinic on St. Thomas have achieved viral suppression. But according to Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp’s 2016 World AIDS Day proclamation, the total number of HIV-positive persons territorywide who are in viral suppression does not reach 30 percent.
According to the same proclamation, only 38 percent of the HIV-positive population in the USVI were receiving care as of 2014. By the same year, a total of 324 persons had been diagnosed with HIV and another 737 had been diagnosed with AIDS in the USVI since the territory’s first case in 1983. More than 450 V.I. residents have died of the disease since the epidemic began.
"One of the things that the community needs to be aware of is that testing is important," Smith said. "We need to have more testing done. We also need the community to embrace anyone that they know or suspect that may have the disease, to respect them. Persons with the disease are discriminated against, not accepted because of the stigma."
The governor’s 2016 proclamation noted that "fear, shame, anger, ignorance and injustice worldwide" are contributing to the stigma which causes HIV/AIDS patients unnecessary pain and distress.
Smith emphasized that HIV/AIDS does not discriminate based on ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation so there is no accurate stereotype of who might carry the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine health care. Testing offered in the Virgin Islands by the Health Department is confidential and free.
"Your security and confidentiality is one of our primary responsibilities," said Smith. " And for those who are uninsured and underinsured, there are programs in place to ensure patients get the care and medication they need."