In 2002 the Ministry of Health launched the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme which has seen 90 per cent of HIV-exposed infants receiving anti-retrovirals to lower their risk of contracting HIV from their mother. The average transmission rate of HIV from mother to child is estimated to be less than 10 per cent coming from the Government’s baseline of 25 per cent of the population of persons living with HIV in Jamaica.
For one 28-year-old Jamaican living with HIV, the Ministry of Health’s Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme was over a decade too late. The young man, who opted to share his story on condition of anonymity for fear of stigmatisation, contracted the virus through breastfeeding.
At a time when there was heightened fear and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, the young man told the Jamaica Observer that he was born to parents who were both HIV positive and were also poor and ill-equipped to treat the virus. Presently, under the PMTC programme, free commercial infant formula for six months is made available to mothers exposed to HIV.
“Back then, they didn’t have the resources to know to locate if somebody have HIV. I was told that I was born without it, but long afterwards I found out that I got it from my mother through breastfeeding. She eventually died from HIV. I had a brother and a sister and both of them also died from the virus,” said the young man, who at five years old was found living in a chicken coop in his father’s backyard.
“After my mother died, I was living with my father who basically abandoned me,” he explained. “He put me out of the house and had me outside in the fowl coop as a young child. That is where I was found half dead. I was malnourished with a big belly and cuts all over my body.”
“I was taken from my father and brought to a home until I was adopted,” the young man said.
The certified technician, who now operates his own business, said he first learned of his HIV status as a teenager through his adopted mother who had kept that information from him throughout his childhood.
“I remember being in my teens and seeing a lot of ads about HIV/AIDS. I was being treated for HIV but I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t know what the medication was for.
“One day I was saying to my adopted mother that I hope I don’t have HIV and she turn to me and say, ‘suppose you have it?’ That was when she told me that I had HIV. I was shocked and in a state of disbelief,” he said.
However, with strong family support, the young man was able to navigate the vagaries of adolescence, even with the health challenges that came with his HIV-positive status.
“Although I was being treated, it was not compatible with me so my system was fighting it, so I was getting sick often. But I pulled through because my adopted family supported me at every point. I also got counselling, so I went through it smoothly. Sometimes I forget that I have HIV,” said the young man.
“Having HIV as a teenager didn’t affect me mentally; it more affected me physically. I was always a sickly child, near to the point of death. I went through a lot; I was in and out of the hospital for months. The hospital was like my second home,” he added.
Today, with his previous resistance to anti-retroviral medication under control, the young entrepreneur told the Sunday Observer that he lives a normal life and has his eyes set on marriage.
“I am currently in a serious relationship with the intention of getting married. My other half is HIV negative and she knows about my status. We are sexually active and I always use a condom. It doesn’t bother her. She does her regular HIV test and she is still negative and it shall remain that way,” he said, admitting that initially he did not tell his partner about his HIV status.
“She is a young lady of faith and at first, I was afraid to tell her. But I had a dream that I should tell her because I was hiding it from her. Eventually I swallowed my pride and made up my mind that if I am to spend the rest of my life with her, she should know. After we talked face to face, she said she appreciated my honesty, and we worked out everything and we are still together,” said the young man
“I live a pretty normal life. All you have to do is take your medication, eat right, exercise and live normal. Anybody with HIV can live a normal life,” he added.
As one who also wants to start a family someday, the young man said he worries about the inaccessibility of health insurance for persons living with HIV.
“I have a hard time with insurance companies. I was trying to get a life insurance policy and I went to a company and was talking with an agent, and she was telling me that persons with HIV/AIDS could not get certain things with the policy. When I told her I had HIV, her face and her whole attitude toward me change and she said she couldn’t help me,” he revealed.
Because of that experience about a year ago, the young man said he has not gone back to any insurance company for fear of a similar reaction. “Up to now I don’t have health insurance because of my HIV status. And that makes me worry. And maybe if I lied, I would have gotten the policy, but I don’t want to do that,” he said.
“I don’t know if that change now, but it would be good if the insurance companies could make insurance available to persons living with HIV because many persons have it. And If you have HIV and can live a normal life, then you supposed to can get insurance because anything can happen,” he added.
The businessman also shared that he is afraid to disclose his HIV status to even his closest associates for fear of being stigmatised.
“Even though I have overcome certain things I still don’t want my associates to know because people still look down on persons living with HIV. I have contracts with several businesses out there, and I used to work for people, but my status has always been private. No one apart from those people who are close to me knows. I don’t know if I will ever have the courage to be open with everyone about it,” he said.
“How people treat persons living with HIV makes it hard to come out and say you have HIV. It doesn’t matter whether you got it from birth or as child, or if you got it sexually. Once you have HIV, no matter how you get it, people stigmatise you.
“I see how people treat persons living with HIV. Even those who know me or who I would say are my friends who don’t know that I have HIV will come to me and tell me about persons they know who have it. That is why I don’t trust people because if them can tell me about other people, then they will also tell people about me,” he added.
As a straight man living with HIV, the young man rubbished the myth that HIV/AIDS is a gay man’s disease.
“That is just foolishness. I don’t even indulge people in that perception. The disease does affect gay men more than any other group, but it’s not them alone. More straight men have it, and you shouldn’t stigmatise people because them have HIV,” he said.
“Some people have HIV and are scared to get the medication because they don’t want the people around them to know that they have it. They hide and try and get the medication, and sometimes they don’t take it at all the time as they should.
“I take having HIV as a responsibility. You have to be selfless. God allowed me to have this disease and how I see it, I have to be responsible. I make sure that I protect myself, my partner and the people around me,” he said.