Mission launched to find, treat HIV positive persons

Last Updated on Wednesday, 1 December 2021, 15:25 by Denis Chabrol

DR. Frank Anthony

More Guyanese living with HIV/AIDS are taking vaccines for COVID-19 and overall the Health Ministry has devised a new strategy to ensure that Persons Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs) take their antiviral medications, Health Ministry officials said on Wednesday.

“The numbers are still a little bit low and we need to improve those numbers to make sure that every single HIV positive person gets on to treatment,” he said.

Programme Manager of the National AIDS Programme Secretariat (NAPS), Dr. Tariq Jagnarine a World AIDS Day Observance said that so far the COVID-19 vaccination coverage in persons living with HIV was at 55 percent and “that number is climbing.” He attributed this to medical outreaches combined with vaccination drives, and one-on-one counselling with persons with living HIV that addressed “their concerns and problems related to the COVID-19 vaccine.”

But Health Minister Dr Frank Anthony said much more needed to be done to ensure that HIV-positive persons are vaccinated against COVID-19. “We have had experts from NAPS going out and talking and answering question but yet the rates are very low so if we have 9,000 persons or so who are positive for HIV we have still a very small percentage who have not taken their vaccine,” he said.

He also said that health authorities were working aggressively to locate HIV positive persons who have stopped returning to clinics for treatment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We still have persons, who have not returned, so as the technical term…there are loss-to-follow-up but we need to find them and bring them back into care because, without that, they are going to end up deteriorating and they are going to end up moving from HIV to AIDS and then it would be more difficult to work with those patients; at this early stage we can change that,” he said. He appealed to NAPS to “find those patients and get them back into care because this is very, very important.”

The Health Minister said that is because the initial closure of  services at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 had resulted in a number of HIV persons no longer going for treatment, running out of medication and possibly interrupted their treatment schedules.

Dr Jagnarine announced that  HIV-self-testing would begin on December 6 at four different public, private and non-governmental sites, in addition to seven new facilities that are offering voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) sites. Currently, there are 50 VCT sites where tests are also being conducted for other sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis, gonorrhea and hepatitis B.

Giving an overview of the disease in Guyana, he said the HIV prevalence has reduced slightly from 1.4 percent to 1.3 percent, with a total of 9,022 recorded cases of which there are 71 new cases for this year.

A section of the attendees at the World AIDS Day 2021 observance

Official figure show that more than 94 percent of persons living with HIV know their status, 70 percent are receiving treatment with antiretrovirals and 83 percent are virally suppressed so they cannot spread the diseases. “With the UN achievement (target) of 90/90/90 we can celebrate the first achievement of the first 90 where 94 percent of persons living with HIV  are aware of their status, I think that’s a big achievement,” the Health Minister added. Dr. Anthony said the time has come to “track them, follow them” and ensure that they are virally suppressed.

Dr Jagnarine announced the official launch of the Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and NPrEp services at 15 sites in the public and private health sector.

The Health Minister said preventing HIV education would depend on the provision of sex education and family life education in schools so that youths could be educated to make the appropriate choices. “A lot of the new infections we are seeing among young people. We are also seeing infections among key population.. we can prevent it by introducing PrEP,” adding that such at-risk persons would be assessed before they are provided with the preventative treatment.

Another strategy, Dr. Anthony said, to reduce infections was self-testing and if positive, such persons could go to one of the clinics to seek expert advice.