As October drew to a close, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Jamaican Ministry of Health that officially enabled the global nonprofit to provide care to people living with HIV in Jamaica as the country’s national HIV partner.
AHF’s operations will begin in the island’s Western Region in November with Montego Bay’s Cornwall Regional Hospital and MoBay Type 5 Clinic, where AHF will assist in the care of 1,518 patients and 1,313 patients, respectively. Additionally, AHF will assist in the care of 994 clients at the Sav-la-Mar Hospital in Sav-la-Mar.
“There are currently 19,617 patients actively in care on the island, and I know we can get so many more into treatment and care,” said Michael Kahane, AHF’s Southern Bureau Chief, who oversees operations in the southern United States and the Caribbean. I truly believe this is going to be an amazing opportunity for AHF to make a difference.”
According to 2012 statistics from the United Nations Joint Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS), about 28,000 people are living with HIV in Jamaica. The demographic with the highest rate of new infections is women aged 9 to 19 years old, and the prevalence rate of HIV among men who have sex with men is 38%.
The high numbers can be attributed in large part to the unimaginable stigma placed on Jamaicans living with HIV, harmful discrimination that Kahane has witnessed the effects of firsthand.
During a recent trip to the island, Kahane met a 17-year-old woman who had become infected at 15 and had a CD4 count of about 6. CD4 count shows the strength of a person’s immune system, and the World Health Organization recommends anyone with a CD4 count of 500 or less receive antiretroviral therapy (ART), but the young woman Kahane met refused to take her medication.
“I asked her why and she told me someone else in her town who was HIV positive had traveled to a clinic two towns away in order to remain anonymous. But a nurse at the clinic who lived in the same town as the patient recognized the patient, and told other people in their town about that person’s HIV status. Word spread quickly around town, and a couple weeks later people from the town formed a human circle around the patient’s house and set it on fire, killing the entire family inside.”
The young woman told Kahane that she was at peace with her own death, but could never be at peace if her HIV status caused harm to her family. Some time after his return to Florida, Kahane received a call from the same young woman: she had left her village and moved to the Jamaican capital of Kingston, where she was taking medication regularly and living a health life in the city, where she works at a hotel. She had just saved up enough money to purchase a cell phone, and the first call she made was to Kahane.
“It was one of the best calls I’ve ever received,” he said.