COLE BAY–St. Maarten AIDS Foundation and its local support group for persons living with HIV “Helping Ourselves in a Positive Environment” (HOPE) hosted the annual Candlelight Memorial at Carl’s Unique Inn, Cole Bay on Sunday.
This year’s theme is “Engage, Educate, Empower.” This event, started in 1983, is one of the world’s oldest and largest grassroots mobilisation campaigns for HIV awareness and is celebrated by some 1,200 community organisations in 115 countries.
Minister of Health Emil Lee in his address to the attendees spoke about his view on the virus. “This candlelight memorial is an opportunity to remember those that have lost their fight against HIV/AIDS and to support those that are currently dealing with their battle,” he said.
“When I was in Boston in the ’80s, I was living in an apartment that was a converted townhouse. New to the workforce, this was an exceptional opportunity to live in a nice neighbourhood at an affordable price. Nice studio apartment with food included for a low price. This was too good to pass.
“The owner was a Harvard educated lawyer living with his lover, Steven. During the time I lived there, Steven was diagnosed HIV positive and eventually passed away. But during that time, I learned a lot and saw how much stress it created and, to be honest, my understanding of the disease hasn’t advanced very much since then.”
Lee said there were still many people in the community who believe that HIV/AIDS is a fatal disease without much hope for living a normal life. Clearly that is not the case anymore. Being HIV positive with early diagnosis is a manageable disease. With proper treatment, individuals can expect to live a long, productive and happy life.
Keynote speaker Nurse Brunilda Illidge spoke about her view on AIDS. “In my work as a nurse for the last 44 years I have noticed that there are many reasons for the continuing spread of HIV/AIDS. It is not tied to irresponsibility, but they often are communicated, complex reasons. The information is out there, but not everywhere.
“In many places people still believe that if you talk about safer sex practices, you are promoting promiscuity. Drug addiction. Shared needles spread HIV and as we all have seen, the increasing in IV drugs (some that are correlated with addiction that starts from an actual prescription). Domestic violence, sex work, misplaced trust, etc.,” Illidge said.
Members of Parliament Cornelius de Weever and Tamara Leonard were present during the event as well as Chief Prosecutor Ton Maan and one of the judges of the Court of First Instance.
The International HIV/AIDS Candlelight Memorial was initiated by the Global Network of persons living with HIV/AIDS and in St. Maarten is organised by HOPE.
AIDS Foundation President Dr. Gerard van Osch presented the Elton Jones Memorial Award to Beatrice “Betty” Richardson. The award is centred around someone in the community who has showed dedication and exemplary service in the field of HIV/AIDS.
Van Osch said, “More people on our island engaged themselves in volunteer work for the foundation. We have many more educators, especially with our Girl Power and Real Talk programmes, and I’ve seen more and more of my patients become empowered. Maybe not to the extent where they feel comfortable to publicly speak about their infection, but empowered enough to tell family, friends and those that are important to them.
“Stigma and discrimination are not gone by far, but certainly have decreased, especially because people have been willing to educate themselves that this is not only a preventable disease, but this is an infection you can now keep under control if you’re serious about it, just like diabetes, just like high blood pressure, just like your bushy hair when you go to the hairdresser or your fingernails when you clip them. You can control it and live a normal life.
“HIV is manageable, even to the extent where treatment now works as prevention, because persons receiving treatment and taking it correctly have so little virus circulating that they can basically not transmit it to their sexual partners. Treatment as prevention is one of most effective strategies.”
In conclusion, Van Osch said, “Because we were so successful, for instance with fundraising, people now think money is not needed anymore and should be given to other projects. And yes I agree there are many more pressing issues that need support, finances and improvements, but the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and many also in our region have recognized that if we don’t continue the aggressive response we have started we’ll lose most, if not all the positive results we have created until now.
“Research will slow down for a cure or vaccine, prevention programmes will close down and that generation without new HIV infections, which is projected for the year 2030, will not happen.”
Source: Daily Herald
Beatrice Richardson receives Elton Jones Memorial Award