The Department of Education’s Abaco AIDS Awareness 2014 Campaign was headed by Sandy Edwards, Family Life and Health Officer. The Theme: “Getting to Zero” was translated as zero deaths, zero new infections and zero discrimination.
Students stood radiantly dressed in their red T-shirts as they formed the signature human ribbon with their teachers and participated in the balloon release. Since 1991, the Human Ribbon also known as “The Red Ribbon Project” has been the symbol of support and compassion for those who are living with the disease and for their caregivers.
Edwards explained that it was beneficial to facilitate the AIDS Awareness campaign at various schools particularly in the case of a school like Central Abaco Primary School (CAPS) where almost 900 students attend school and can be educated about the disease.
This was CAPS first year participating. Ceremonies were also planned for Treasure Cay Primary School and St. Francis de Sales Catholic School.
“The mere fact that they have purchased a T-shirt means they have joined the fight against HIV/AIDS,” Edwards said. “I am really happy today that this event has taken place in such a mass number.”
Funds collected from the T-shirts went to The Bahamas AIDS Foundation in New Providence.
From a local perspective, Edwards explained that statistics do not pinpoint the islands where students have contracted HIV therefore the reported cases represent the total number of students in The Bahamas. Even so, she said there is no fear of students passing the disease from one student to another in our schools.
“There is no fear or there should not be any fear of children contracting HIV in that vein simply because we know how HIV is transmitted – by sexual activity or you have some extreme cases where contaminated blood has been transferred from one person to the next. So there should be no fear among our students if there is a student … that’s infected.”
She said students are encouraged to love each other no matter what the situation is, so they can hug or share their lunches with those who are infected because the disease is not contracted that way.
Of course at the high school level, students are encouraged to abstain from sexual relations, but educators are also realistic in telling the students that if they are going to be sexually active to visit a doctor and be tested. Although the focus of the campaign is HIV/AIDS related, she noted that syphilis is on the rise among this age group.
AIDS AWARENESS CAMPAIGN:
While the students were still gathered, student leaders shared statistics and poetry on HIV/AIDS. From 1985-2013, 13,082 persons in The Bahamas have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and 35 percent of those cases have died. At the end of 2013, 8440 were living with HIV/AIDS in The Bahamas.
Soon, Edwards called on Nurse Natasha Pennerman as the guest speaker. Nurse Pennerman was from the National HIV/ AIDS Centre in New Providence, which works in conjunction with the hospitals, and she is responsible for the care of all the pediatric clients (children) infected with HIV or AIDS.
“I have kids as young as you guys are that were born with the disease,” Nurse Pennerman revealed. “So you may ask how you may help. You can help by helping us get to zero with zero stigma and discrimination; by being your brother’s keeper – by being someone’s friend, lend a hand and be there to support that person; and by abstaining.
Over the last 10 years, she said there has been a drastic decrease in babies born with the disease because of the existence of the ‘Mother to Child Transmission Program.’ While the percentage is now less than 3 percent of babies born positive, Nurse Pennerman said that the greater challenge is found among children in the adolescent stage who were born to a mother who was HIV positive before any medication was given.
Still, she was pleased to note that new cases of the disease being transmitted at birth have drastically decreased.
Nurse Pennerman added that because of advancement in medication there really isn’t room for suffering in a sense. She said children grow to become adults who live healthy, normal lives like any individual.
“HIV is now being looked at as a chronic illness – something you can manage for the rest of your life – just like hypertension or diabetes once you adhere to the medication that has been given to you with the exception of you having a support system.
“When you feel a little hopeless today, you have someone behind you saying, ‘come on you know you gotta do this to stay well,’ and in most cases because they are children, they have that support system.”
Nurse Pennerman shared that she was assigned to the area that she works in; however, as a nurse by profession, she loves everything about nursing.
“I believe that it is something you are called to do, and it is one of the professions that many can’t do. I call them my children because now they’ve almost become like my kids because I have grown with them for the last four or five years I’ve been in this area.
She added: “It’s not an area that people would run to because of the stigma that’s attached to it, but there are a lot of rewards. You feel so uplifted when you see a person that was on their death bed, and you encouraged them to become compliant to their medication, and now they are around walking healthy with a job living their life because you’ve given them a new sense of hope. So that’s the reward out of it all; it is part of what kept me here working in this area.”
She has observed a number of 20-year-olds who have gone on to college and are established in their careers because they took care of themselves.
Despite the advancements, though, she admitted that there is a stigma still attached to HIV/AIDS, but it is something they are continuing to work on. Nurse Pennerman said that there is so much more knowledge available than there was 15 years ago.
She reasoned that a stigma is attached when people think of how you acquire the disease when that is not necessarily always the case.
“At the end of the day, who are we? HIV doesn’t have a preference, it doesn’t have a creed, it doesn’t discriminate, and money can’t buy you out of it once you’ve gotten it,” she argued.
One of the greatest myths, she said, is when people say you can tell by looking at someone if they have HIV.
“Essentially, HIV doesn’t have a look, so how can you go by that? We encourage others to know their status by getting tested and getting their partners tested,” she emphasized. “We also encourage persons that have been infected with the virus to come and get care, so that you can be here for when the cure comes. We want to keep you at an optimum state of health, so that you don’t have to get sick, you don’t have to die. There’s no reason for people to still be dying from HIV when there have been so many medical advancements.”
Nurse Pennerman’s presentation ended with HIV/AIDS trivia and an expression of gratitude to the students.
“On behalf of all of those persons that are suffering from HIV, and those that have since passed, we send a great thank you for continuing to help us in the support and the fight against HIV and AIDS,” she concluded.