Health Watch: Taking responsibility for sexual health

As many readers might be aware, the Caribbean has the second highest prevalence of AIDS and HIV cases in the world, with Africa leading the way in this sad statistic. Yet, perhaps because the Cayman Islands has the highest standard of living within the region and therefore perhaps people don’t believe we could suffer the same fate as the rest of the Caribbean, there has not in the past been a particularly active approach to preventing the diseases and even discussing the subject in public. The Cayman Island Red Cross is energetically embracing the issue, and in particular is hoping to raise awareness via a brand new campaign launch. Business Editor, Lindsey Turnbull reports.

Since 1985 (according to statistics from the Public Health Department and as of 30 September 2008) there have been 44 cases of AIDS in the Cayman Islands and 41 cases where individuals have tested positive for HIV. Since then, three people have died from AIDS, (one, a child of just 11, had contracted the disease from their mother). Worthy of note is the fact that most of these patients (67 per cent) contracted the disease via heterosexual intercourse, with only 20 males stating that they were either homosexual or bisexual, while four children contracted HIV from their mothers and one through intravenous drug use, thus plainly dispelling the myth that AIDS and HIV are “gay” diseases.

The campaign is on
Carolina Ferreira is the Red Cross’s Programmes Manager and has spearheaded two important awareness campaigns in Cayman aimed at educating the public and young people in particular about AIDS and HIV.

The first campaign ‘HIV+……until proven negative’ showcased with a series of adverts how individuals ought to be taking control of their own lives and get tested for HIV and AIDS in a bid to protect their own health and that of their loved ones.

Carolina explains why this was such an important first step for the community: “In Cayman we have mandatory testing for any ex-patriot wishing to come and work here. This blanket testing of new workers (and periodic testing upon work permit renewal) gives a hugely false sense of security to those already living here, and thus we wanted to get the message out that everyone needs to take responsibility for themselves and their actions and get tested.”

She explains further: “Although workers are tested, their accompanying spouses and dependents are not. Also, there is nothing to stop a Caymanian (who is not subjected to mandatory testing) contracting the disease while abroad, nor is there anything to stop a visiting tourist infecting a local resident while they visit the island. Mandatory testing for work permits just does not work.”

Carolina says that young people in particular have embraced the concept of viewing everyone as positive until proven negative and she has retained that enthusiasm for her most recent campaign, launched in June.

“We believe that it is important to educate young people who can then in turn educate their peers, a far more powerful voice for young people than a bunch of adults telling them what to do,” she says. “We recruited some courageous young people to take part in peer education about safe sex and the importance of testing and we believe we have reached out to around 2000 young people in this way.”

The bid to save sex
Carolina says their latest “Save Sex” campaign is all about empowerment for the individual.

She explains: “Sex these days is either not discussed and swept under the carpet in the hope that it will just go away, or, to the other extreme, out there and cheapened by the (US in particular) media to the extent that it is worthless. Cayman youngsters are caught in between these two extremes – not daring to discuss the issue openly with parents while at the same time feeling the pressure to begin sexual activity before they are ready, and so we decided it was time to save sex and talk about the issue in a healthy way.”

Carolina is delighted that some of her peer educators have come back on board to assist with this new campaign, entitled “Save Sex: Breaking the Taboo”. She was also delighted to introduce the newly elected Health Minister, Mark Scotland, to introduce the subject at a launch party in June.

Kudos should go to the Health Minister himself, for broaching a difficult subject with courage and intelligence.

Scotland said at the launch: “Most will agree that HIV/AIDS is a difficult topic – not one you necessarily see yourself discussing around the family dinner table, or in school or church. However, our young people need to have these conversations – candidly and without shame.”

Scotland commended the Red Cross and all their partners for taking the initiative and said that because official figures show low infection levels in Cayman, many tended to think HIV and AIDS were not priority health issues.

He furthered: “However, we need to remind ourselves that official statistics only reflect those tested; actual figures may well be higher. In addition, our local aids activists and public health officials tell us that if current sexual behaviours do not change here, then HIV/AIDS will become an increasingly serious problem.”

Father of three, Scotland, (who is also the Minister for Youth, Sports and Culture) is a keen advocator for Cayman’s youth, and said that in opening up this traditionally taboo subject, the way people think about HIV and its causes can be changed.

He stated: “So many times we keep information away from our young people, fearing that they might misinterpret or misuse the information, but we need to give them more credit. Only if we bring this menace out in the open, will they be able to enhance their understanding—and to take responsibility for their actions.”

Carolina says that the Red Cross could not continue its campaign against HIV and AIDS in a vacuum and therefore partnered with other community partners to further the message.
“We needed to broaden the scope of the message so that sex could be “saved” in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons,’ she explains. “Our campaign features peer educators and representatives from partners in the campaign, including Books and Books, Equality Cayman, the National Drugs Council, the Freedom of Information Unit, The Human Rights Committee, Jacques Scott, Rotoract, The Cayman AIDS Foundation, the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre and the Youth Ministry, all holding banners proclaiming that sex should be saved for a variety of reasons and from a variety of threats, including violence, discrimination and ignorance. It’s a powerful message that should open up minds to healthy discussion of the issue.”



Carolina Ferreira Red Cross Programmes Manager: We believe that it is important to educate young people who can then in turn educate their peers