By L. K. Hewlett

You could have HIV/AIDS.

Maybe you don’t.

There’s only one way to know for sure — get tested.

With more than  250 reported cases of HIV/AIDS in the Federation and more than 40 AIDS related deaths, government health official said citizens should cast aside their fears and ignorance and find out their status.

How many more have it but don’t know and are therefore spreading it?

According to public health officials, one person with HIV/AIDS is one too many, because one may spread it to Jack, Jill, Paul, and Susie and they in turn will spread it to another four and so on and so on.

In a small population such as this, how long would it be before you or someone you love contracts the disease, health officials asked.

One of the biggest fears of getting tested is the stigma that is still attached to HIV/AIDS. Another is the possibility that the test may come back positive. Ignorance may be bliss, but in this case, ignorance can kill you, your husband or wife, your life companion or your unborn child.

HIV/AIDS is an epidemic that is sweeping the Caribbean as well as the rest of the world. It is not hereditary and it is not an airborne pathogen, which means it is preventable.

Instead of putting yourself at risk, you can take some simple precautions to safeguard your life and the lives of your loved ones.

The National AIDS Secretariat through the Ministry of Health has educated citizens about HIV/AIDS for many years. Marlene Liburd, National AIDS Programme Co-ordinator, handles all AIDS related issues in St. Kitts.

Liburd, along with her team, Gardenia Richardson and Juletta Hendrickson, have taken to the schools to educate youths about this disease and how they could save their own lives.

Liburd said testing is now more confidential, with extra measures put in place to protect both the tester’s results and their identity and the test is free at any Health Centre or Hospital in the Federation.

Test samples are coded for added protection and results delivered only to a physician, which helps eliminate anyone ‘minding’ one’s business.

Step one is to get tested to know your status.

Once you have taken that first step and tested negative, it is time to stop playing Russian roulette with your life, Liburd said. Abstinence is the first and only foolproof line of defence. It’s like playing cricket; if you’re not in the game, you cannot get caught out. Some may think abstinence is unrealistic, but there are other options.

“An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,”  said Liburd. “That does not adequately describe the importance of protecting oneself against HIV/AIDS and other social diseases by using condoms. One simply cannot judge another person’s status by their appearance, so it is foolish to think that if someone does not have a bad reputation, then that person must be AIDS free.

“We have been to every high school and almost all of the primary schools on the island providing education about HIV/AIDS. We engage in lively discussions with the students as we seek to raise their awareness level,” Liburd said. “Even at 5th Grade level, the students are very much aware of the disease so we have come to realise the need to educate our kids on these matters from very early on.”

Henderson and Richardson both act as counsellors not only to students but to adults too. They too expressed similar sentiments about how early kids are becoming sexually aware. They added that children are being bombarded with sex via television. peers and the Internet and it shows in their behavioural patterns.

Promiscuity is on the rise and a large fraction of the sexually indiscriminate is made up of teenagers, which begs the question; why would parents allow both young boys and girls to be out at all hours attending grown-up functions? Parents are providing their children with the opportunity to indulge in behaviour that could put them at risk.

In some of the reading and viewing paraphernalia used by the Secretariat in their awareness and prevention programmes, it is shown how consumption of drugs and alcohol can impair judgement and lead to unprotected sex and the increased risk of contracting HIV.

In 2000, a five-step National Strategic Plan was developed to get the public more aware and involved in eradicating HIV/AIDS. The five priority areas were Awareness, Advocacy, Prevention, Care treatment/support, and Surveillance and Epidemiolgy.

“The ABCD of HIV/AIDS Prevention is a simple one; A- Abstinence, B- Being faithful to one partner, C- Consistent use of Condoms, D- Dangers of using Drugs and Alcohol,” Liburd said, “These are some of the ways that we can protect ourselves and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. My team and I routinely counsel people about how their behaviour can lead to their detriment.”

However there is life after AIDS. Many people have gone on treatment regimens and are living full lives despite having HIV. The treatment is readily available in the Federation free of cost, and again steps have been taken to protect people’s privacy. The attending physician, using a code system, can place the order and have the person pick up the medication at the doctor’s office without anyone even knowing.

“We would like to live in a world where people don’t discriminate against persons living with AIDS and their families. So until that time we need persons to feel safe knowing that their testing, results and treatment will be kept confidential.” Richardson said.

HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was when it was discovered in the 1980s; with treatment people with the disease can lead full lives. The Secretariat emphasises that people not discriminate against people and their families when it is discovered that someone has AIDS but instead, treat them fairly. AIDS cannot be contracted through casual touch and everyday interaction or even by sharing a drinking cup.

HIV/AIDS does not discriminate against age, social status, wealth, colour or creed. It is an equal opportunity disease and it lends neither preference nor favour to any of us. Let us remember this: today it’s him or her, tomorrow it may be me or you.