Speaking at a press conference to announce the approval of funds for the National HIV/STI Programme at the Terra Nova Hotel in Kingston, Dr Ferguson said although the HIV/STI programme has made significant strides in achieving a decline in new infections and is on track to halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, it continues to face challenges with respect to the prevalence rate among vulnerable groups.
“While we have a prevalence rate of 1.8 per cent among the general population, female sex workers have a prevalence of 4.2 per cent, young men under 25 years who have sex with men are at 24.3 per cent as at 2013, and adult men who have sex with men (MSM) have a prevalence rate of 32 per cent,” the health minister explained.
“In addition, men who have sex with men and their female partners accounted for almost 40 per cent of new infections in 2012,” he said.
“I want to further note that MSM who reported being involved in sex work, reported an HIV prevalence of 41 per cent, transgender women 45 per cent, and transgender populations in sex work reaching as high as 56 per cent.”
Insisting that the prevalence rate among these groups are “way too high”, Dr Ferguson said that much of the efforts must be concentrated on these vulnerable groups, adding that there is the ever present challenge of implementing mechanisms to effectively deal with the issue of stigma and discrimination.
The approved funds include US$14.9 million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, to be used from January 2016 to December 2018; US$5 million from the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDs Relief (PEPFAR)/United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for the 2015/2016 financial year, and increased budgetary allocation from the Jamaican Government.
The funds, according to the minister, will facilitate support geared at reaching those most at risk of becoming HIV infected, as well as those who are already infected through the provision of treatment, care and support services.
Dr Ferguson said the PEPFAR grant has already been approved and that they are now in the final stages of completing the ministry’s work plan, while a mission from the Global Fund is now in the island working through funding requirements and guidelines with stakeholders to develop an integrated plan.
He told the Jamaica Observer that the additional funds being pumped into the programme will enable them to focus on vulnerable groups, instead of just the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among the general population.
“I think we have done extremely well to get to 1.8 per cent, but you would’ve heard the startling statistics I spoke to and unless you are able to target those groups and while targeting them, increasing your public education component that’s going to be important because even as you [set] targets, people must know what they should do, what puts them at risk, etc,” the minister said.
“And I think this funding during this period would really help us to break the back to get Jamaica to be, undoubtedly, the leader within the Caribbean relative to HIV/AIDS.”
The minister admitted that for some the identified vulnerable groups is a controversial topic, but he remained committed to ensuring the stigma and discrimination that is often demonstrated is removed, even as public education is boosted.
“You would have noted [the figure of] men who have sex with men but also with women, you are talking about 40 per cent, that’s extremely high,” the minister reiterated, while speaking to the Observer.
“You know sometimes you are focusing on the MSM alone, and not realising that our women are also at risk in those situations.
“So, we will just have to continue the public education, even as we continue to deal with those issues that mitigate treatment of these specific vulnerable groups,” Dr Ferguson insisted.
Meanwhile, in calling for continued partnerships to multiply the gains, the minister thanked both the mission from the Global Fund and USAID for their “consistent support of the national effort to fight the prevalence of HIV and AIDS among the Jamaican population”.