Op-Ed: World AIDS Day

Photo Credit: AP Images

By United States Ambassador Perry L. Holloway

Colors can be powerful.  They can invoke emotions, stir memories, and awaken our senses.  Red has a particular strength; it is fierce, bold, and alive.  And so I wear a red ribbon today – a small but mighty symbol of solidarity against a disease that continues to affect the lives of thousands in Guyana and millions throughout the world.  This disease is HIV.

Approximately 8,200 people are living with HIV in Guyana.  To support them, the Embassy and PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, work hand in hand with the Ministry of Public Health, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, and multilateral partners including PAHO/WHO,  UNAIDS, and the Global Fund.  It is these partnerships that can make an HIV-free Guyana a reality.

For the first time in modern history, we have the opportunity to control a pandemic without a vaccine or a cure.  Collectively we are accelerating progress toward controlling and, ultimately, ending the HIV epidemic as a public health threat.

Thanks to the generosity of the American people, 13 countries with significant HIV burdens are now poised to achieve epidemic control by 2020.  Millions of babies have been given a chance at healthy lives.  Whole societies have been empowered to flourish, and AIDS-related deaths have declined by nearly 50 percent globally since their peak in 2005.

Between September 2014 and September 2017, more than 20,000 individuals received HIV tests as a result of PEPFAR-supported programs.  Individuals testing positive were linked to HIV care and treatment services.  Each year, the total number of patients receiving treatment has steadily increased.  At the end of September 2017, more than 3,000 patients were enrolled in care at PEPFAR-supported facilities across Guyana.  We also contributed to putting approximately 1,100 Guyanese on treatment over the past two years, through the procurement of HIV medication.

I commend the Government of Guyana for adopting the “Treat All” policy – the global standard for HIV treatment that says every individual who tests positive for HIV should rapidly initiate antiretroviral treatment.  In June, Minister of Health Volda Lawrence sent a communique to all treatment sites emphasizing the importance of this policy.  We applaud this important step forward in ensuring that Treat All is the practice throughout Guyana.

In addition, I celebrate the leadership of First Lady Mrs. Sandra Granger, who is working to elevate awareness of and attention to HIV in the Caribbean.  Via the Spouses of CARICOM Leaders Action Network, the First Lady has become a leading advocate on important issues including mother-to-child HIV transmission, adolescent pregnancy, and violence against women and girls.  I hope the First Lady’s involvement can help to raise the profile of the many challenges related to the country’s HIV epidemic.

Today, the HIV response is guided by the UNAIDS’ “90-90-90” metric, which aims for 90 percent of those infected with HIV to know their status, 90 percent of those diagnosed to be on antiretroviral treatment (ART), and 90 percent of those on treatment to achieve viral suppression.  In Guyana, according to the UNAIDS 2017 report, 68 percent of people living with HIV know their status.  Of those, 84 percent are on ART.  And, of those, 82 percent have achieved viral suppression.  While we should celebrate the achievements in treatment coverage and viral suppression, it is estimated that there are over 2,600 people in Guyana who have not yet been diagnosed.

And so, it is fitting that the theme for this global World AIDS Day is “Know Your Status.”  As the adage goes, “knowledge is power.”  In the case of HIV/AIDS, the knowledge of one’s HIV status empowers that individual to initiate treatment that enables a long, healthy life.  Even if they are not sick, those who test positive should immediately start a treatment regimen in order to maintain their health.  If people consistently take their prescribed medications, they can achieve viral suppression.  This is the path to effective epidemic control — and a Guyana free of HIV/AIDS.

On this World AIDS Day, I hope you take a moment to think about those living with HIV and AIDS in Guyana.  Wear a red ribbon or red clothing.  And, while we stand in solidarity with those living with HIV, ensure that you know your own status as well, no matter your lifestyle and no matter your gender.

Together, we can end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Guyana.