On December 1, 2014, the global community will observe World AIDS Day. First observed in 1988, this day provides all of us with the opportunity to unite in the fight against HIV, to show our support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate the lives of those who have died from this terrible disease. The statistics on HIV/AIDS are truly staggering. More than 35 million people – brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends – have died from HIV/AIDS since the virus was first discovered in 1981. Today, some 34 million people around the globe are living with HIV. There are over 8,000 people living with HIV in The Bahamas at an estimated 3% prevalence among the population. In fact, the Caribbean region trails behind only sub-Saharan Africa as the most HIV-affected region in the world.
The U.S. government’s official theme for World Aids Day 2014 is “Focus, Partner, and Achieve: An AIDS Free Generation.” We are proud of the partnership between the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and the United States in fighting HIV/AIDS. Since 2010, the United States has provided approximately $10 million in funding under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), most of which has gone to help the Ministry of Health and The Bahamas National AIDS Program provide HIV/AIDS-related treatment, community outreach support staff, rapid HIV testing kits, and laboratory supplies. The U.S. Embassy’s Small Grants Program also has provided about $130,000 in PEPFAR funding to local community partners, supporting twenty-seven projects to ensure that target populations in The Bahamas have accurate information about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, how to get tested, and how to get treated, if necessary. All of these programs and activities move us closer to our joint commitment to eliminate new HIV transmissions and deaths from HIV/AIDS in The Bahamas, part of the “Getting to Zero” goals.
As we pause on December 1 to remember the millions of lives affected by HIV/AIDS, we should also remember to do our part to help eliminate discrimination against those affected by HIV/AIDS. In The Bahamas and elsewhere, tolerance is critical in providing access to care for those people at the highest risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV, including men and women trapped in the commercial sex industry, men who have sex with men, transgender persons, and those who engage in high risk behavior related to substance abuse issues. We all must recognize that eliminating stigma and discrimination is key to ensuring that people feel safe in accessing HIV/AIDS treatment and care services. Conversely, intolerance and treating people with a lack of dignity and respect can create insurmountable barriers for those who most need these essential services, and can lead to delayed diagnosis, delayed treatment, and death.
On World AIDS Day 2014, let us affirm that all persons – including commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender persons, the wider LGBT community, those with substance abuse issues, and members of any other group that suffers from the negative health effects of discrimination –are free to access and receive essential health services. We invite all those who share our goal of an AIDS-free generation to help make our hospitals and medical facilities, schools, churches, and communities places that reach out to those in need, and to ensure that every Bahamian can be confident in knowing that he or she will be treated with dignity and respect when seeking essential, lifesaving services.