In late October 2013, AHF signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Jamaican Ministry of Health that officially enabled the nonprofit to provide care to Jamaicans living with HIV as the country’s national HIV partner. AHF Jamaica’s work began soon after in the island’s Western Region, where AHF Jamaica partnered in providing care for 1,518 people from Montego Bay’s Cornwall Regional Hospital, 1,313 people from the MoBay Type 5 Clinic, and 994 clients at the Savanna-La-Mar Hospital in Savanna-La Mar, which is the chief town in the island’s capital of Westmoreland Parish. AHF Jamaica is also partnering with a well-respected NGO in Jamaica to provide care for HIV+ patients in the NGO’s facilities in Kingston, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.
Approximately 29,000 people are living with HIV in Jamaica, and as many as half of them do not know their status. 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%. In 2011, 394 Jamaicans died as a result of HIV infection. The high numbers can be attributed in large part to the unimaginable stigma placed on Jamaicans living with HIV, harmful discrimination that AHF Southern Region Bureau Chief Michael Kahane, who oversees AHF operations in the Caribbean, has witnessed the effects of firsthand. During a trip to the island to negotiate AHF’s involvement in Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS fight, Kahane met a 17-year-old girl who became infected at 15 and had a drastically low CD4 count of 6 (the World Health Organization advises that anyone living with HIV with a CD4 count below 500 must receive antiretroviral therapy). Despite her clear need for treatment, the young woman refused medication due to the violent, and at times fatal, stigma she had seen befall HIV-positive neighbors who went to clinics for medication.
One person she knew even went to a clinic two towns away to pick up medication anonymously, but was recognized by a nurse from her town, who later revealed the patient’s HIV status to the town, leading them to burn down the patient’s house with an entire family inside. The young woman told Kahane she could handle dying from AIDS, but could not accept her family’s death due to her seeking medication for her condition. However, shortly before AHF Jamaica was established, the young woman called Kahane in Florida: she had left her village and moved to the capital of Kingston, where she was adhering to her treatment and working in a hotel. When she had saved up enough money for a cell phone, the first call she made was to Kahane to tell him the good developments, of which he recalls, “It was one of the best calls I’ve ever received.”