New Jamaican web drama series to tackle youth sexual and reproductive health

The Ashe Company, a civil society partner of Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), launched a web drama series, “CHILL”, which aims to foster increased awareness of sexual and reproductive health among the Region’s youth.

“CHILL” focuses on a group of Jamaican millennials as they navigate sex, love and relationships. The realities of the HIV epidemic intrude on their lives and force the characters to face fears and uncomfortable truths in this fast-paced drama. In “CHILL”, reproductive and sexual health messages are interwoven into the storylines as the characters follow their passions and ambitions.

The 13-episode production was developed by The Ashe Company, which has a strong history of edutainment interventions. Ashe uses innovative and creative techniques to impart behaviour change strategies around social issues. These proven techniques are used to reach specific cohorts and populations of people with targeted messaging. The production aims to provide empowering and inspiring stories of courage from everyday people in communities affected by HIV.

The series premiered on The Ashe Company’s YouTube page (@theashecompany) in March, with new episodes uploaded each week at 6:00 PM Jamaica Time.

Watch the trailer for “CHILL” here.

NAC Belize and CRN+ collaborate to promote workplace-specific HIV policies

The National AIDS Commission (NAC), Belize, in partnership with the Caribbean Regional Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (CRN+), hosted a virtual Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Forum with the participation of fifty (50) members of various sectors of society, including members of the public, private, and government sectors.

The Forum was facilitated by local consultant Dr Minerva Pinelo from “Rights Insights”. Presenters included Ms Eva Burgos, Executive Director, Gojoven Belize and CSO Hub, Mr Enrique Romero, Executive Director, NAC Belize, and Mr Jason Shepperd, Senior Programme Officer, CRN+.

The event, which was open to the public, provided the platform for participants to learn more about Belize’s HIV response.  The event also focused on the Caribbean’s HIV experience and, more significantly, the revised HIV workplace policy. The primary goal was to fuel engagement around the acceptance, development, and implementation of workplace-specific HIV policies.

The Primary objectives of having businesses and organizations formulate their own HIV workplace policy include but are not limited to creating an environment that is conducive to openness and acceptance among employees, ensuring confidentiality and non-discrimination, promoting awareness and prevention training programmes to reduce the possibility of contracting HIV and improve care, treatment, and support services.

Other objectives include promoting access to treatment and reducing new infections, limiting the impact of HIV and AIDS in the workplace at the individual level for employees, their families, and communities and ensuring a healthy workforce and long-term production sustainability.

The Forum also provided an opportunity for participants to engage in interactive discussions through a question-and-answer session and receive clarification on areas of interest related to HIV and AIDS.  The topics discussed included stigma and discrimination, the effects of COVID-19 on People Living with HIV (PLHIV) and the overall economy.  Participants also discussed ways to ensure mutually beneficial partnerships for progress, the need for increased technical support from the private sector to Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and increased outreach support from the CSOs to the private sector.

Participants were provided with a brochure that included a roadmap in preparation for the development and design of an HIV workplace policy. The brochure can be accessed via the NAC’s website (www.nacbelize.org).

Anira Foundation adapts operations to ensure continuity of sexual and reproductive health education for young people during COVID-19

Image – Mrs Sandra Granger, Founder and Chair, Anira Foundation presenting a certificate to a participant of the peer educators training at the Foundation’s office

The Anira Foundation, launched in 2017 by Former First Lady of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana and PANCAP Champion for Change, Mrs Sandra Granger, adjusted its focus and modus operandi due to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

The Foundation had planned three Robotics Camps for children during the year in collaboration with STEMGuyana.  It conducted one camp at the Lusignan/Good Hope Learning Centre in January. The declaration of the pandemic and the institution of COVID-19 Guidelines commencing in March caused the scheduling of the other camps to be put on hold until the restrictions are lifted.

Implementation of the Anira Foundation-SCLAN-Gilead Science Project to improve the sexual and reproductive health of young people, including avoidance of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, was also slowed by the pandemic. The Project Coordinator and Staff then focused attention on what they could achieve.

They met virtually, liaised with relevant partners and engaged in several intervention activities, including the recruitment of consultants and staff; developing an updated data collection plan; initiating contact with community leaders; identifying peer educators and trainers to be trained; and developing indicators for teen mothers to be assimilated into school or skills training.

While consideration was given to conducting training and interviews virtually, it was discovered that this might not yield optimal results due to problems related to connectivity and cultural biases.  Hence, under strict adherence to the COVID-19 Guidelines, training of peer educators was conducted in November 2020 at the Foundation’s office.  Ten young women were trained for Phase I of the project, which is scheduled to focus on Sophia, a large community on the outskirts of the capital Georgetown (Region 4- Demerara/Mahaica).

The decision was also taken to initiate contact with community leaders in Region 9 – Upper Essequibo/Upper Takutu and Region 1- Barima/Waini so that work could begin on these Phases of the Project.  This would help make up for time lost.

The Foundation recognized the heavy economic burden caused by the pandemic and, through the kindness of donors, provided clothing and toiletries to teen mothers,  distributed COVID-19 relief to teen mothers through “Women Across Differences” and a few single mothers and shut-ins. This was done through the monthly provision of gift certificates redeemable at any Bounty Supermarket.

The Foundation looks forward to the easing of restrictions so that it can continue its work and fulfil its mission of educating and empowering vulnerable citizens of Guyana

My COVID-19 vaccination experience and what lies ahead for us

(Georgetown, Guyana via Kaieteur News)  This past week gave me renewed hope of us getting ahead of this pandemic. I never thought I would be getting vaccinated against COVID-19 so early. It’s been less than a year since the World Health Organization declared this pandemic, and we already have access to vaccines against it in Guyana. I am grateful to the authorities, and I am also optimistic for my fellow Guyanese as the government has declared that there should be sufficient vaccines for all Guyanese in 2021. This has obviously provided us with an opportunity to exit the pandemic, and we need to grasp the opportunity to get vaccinated with both hands. Today, I will share my vaccination experience with you and present facts that will hopefully encourage you to get vaccinated as soon as your turn comes.

How I felt after getting vaccinated?

I was given my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine late last week, and it was a surreal experience. As a health worker that routinely deals with COVID-19 patients, it felt like I was being given a dose of freedom as I wouldn’t have to put my life in jeopardy every time I have to see a patient. The nurse who administered my vaccine was as nice as they come, and I didn’t feel much when the vaccine was given to me. I then went back to work as per usual and had a productive workday. As it progressed into the evening, my arm got a bit sore, and I had a mild headache. As the night progressed and early the next day, I had some body aches and felt a little fatigued. I am currently firing on all cylinders and I’m feeling much more optimistic than before I was vaccinated.

Is it bad to get symptoms after being vaccinated?

While many see some post-vaccination symptoms and side effects as bad, I was very happy to have the body aches and fatigue. Knowing what I knew, I realised that my symptoms were a sign that my body was mounting an immune response to the vaccine, and therefore, I am developing immunity against COVID-19. If I didn’t get any symptoms after the vaccine, I would have been worried that I may not have mounted an immune response. While most look at the following symptoms as side effects of the vaccine, I look at them as our immune response to the vaccine:  sore arm, headache, chills, tiredness, feeling sick, fever, dizziness, weakness and aching muscles.

Of course, there may be a few persons with allergic reactions to the vaccine, but that is extremely rare. Most of the time, these persons would have had a history of being allergic to other vaccines. Please note that vaccines are different from injections that are given for pain and routine infections. If you were allergic to a pain or antibiotic injection, it doesn’t mean that you are allergic to vaccines. If you never had allergic reactions to vaccines, then it’s likely that you will not be allergic to the COVID-19 vaccine.

What lies ahead for me?

Now that I would have gotten my first dose, I will have to get a follow-up booster shot in three months. This booster shot basically seals the deal and strengthens my immune response even further, so that my body is more prepared to combat COVID-19. Currently, my immune system is developing antibodies against the SarsCov2 virus (Coronavirus) and it will take about a couple of weeks for sufficient antibodies to form. While there should be a decent amount of antibodies in about a month from now, the booster shot in three months will ramp those antibodies level further up so that I have an extremely strong defence system that is prepared and ready to overwhelm the coronavirus if I get in contact with it.

Can I finally move around without masks?

No, I cannot! As you just read, my body will take time to prepare a proper immune response against the Coronavirus. During this time, I can still get infected and be affected by COVID-19. In addition, there is a small percentage of people who the vaccine does not work as well as it does in most others. While I am optimistic that the vaccine is efficacious in me because of my symptoms after being vaccinated, I will not leave anything to chance. Therefore, I will still practise social distancing, wear my mask, and practice proper hygiene until enough of us are vaccinated and we can exit the pandemic.

What lies ahead for Guyana?

I am optimistic for us as a country especially after the government announced that it should have sufficient vaccines for all Guyanese in 2021. We need to vaccinate around 75-80 percent of our population before we can begin to safely move around freely and without masks. If we take too long to do this and the virus continues to spread, then the virus is likely to mutate even more and the current vaccines may become ineffective. We are racing against the virus and these vaccines are the boosters that we have to win this race before the virus mutates too much and we can never catch up with it.

I urge you to get vaccinated as soon as your turn arrives and encourage everyone you know to do the same. We are in this together and can only get out if we all play our part and get vaccinated. If more than 25 percent of us choose not to get vaccinated, then we are stuck in this pandemic and we will all continue to suffer for years to come.

Public Health Champion – Dr Ruth Ramos

Dr Ruth Ramos Gonzalez-Ram is a Cuban born, Guyanese-trained physician who has made significant contributions in HIV medicine, patient care and services provided in Guyana. On the occasion of her retirement, I sat with her to find out a little more about her journey and her experiences over the years.

Dr Ramos graduated from the University of Guyana School of Medicine in 2000 and started to work at Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC). In her days at the Internal Medicine department, Dr Ramos recalls that she was always attracted to what was referred to as the “back cubicle”- where all the AIDS patients were placed. At that time, knowledge of HIV and AIDS was minimal, there were no antiretroviral drugs available, and there was little one could do to help these patients.

Fast forward a few years, and in 2002, she was asked to be a substitute doctor at the Genito-Urinary Medicine (GUM) Clinic at a time when they anticipated they were going to be short of staff. She worked at the GUM clinic initially for two months, but her interest was solidified in working with infectious diseases and HIV medicine during this time. Upon her return to GPHC, she requested to be permanently transferred over to the GUM Clinic.

Dr Ramos recalls that there were many challenges in the early days: delayed HIV results, unavailability and limitations with regards to treatment options and lack of knowledge on HIV management. She said there were many times when improvisation was necessary, especially when treating children, but that they always worked to make the most of what they had in every situation to do the best for patients.

Dr Ramos says there have been many improvements and she has been a first-hand witness to these as they have happened over the years. Presently, HIV testing is available across the country, care and treatment have been de-centralized, and people can access both antiretrovirals and treatment for opportunistic infections at many locations. She says human resources have significantly increased. More doctors, counsellors, outreach workers, and nurses have been properly trained and equipped to manage HIV. Literature has become widely available, and the country has developed its guidelines and protocols for HIV management. Dr Ramos is proud to have witnessed this transformative period and to have played a role in making it happen.

When asked to share some of the key things she has learnt over the years, Dr Ramos says that working with HIV patients, at the time when she did, introduced her to a virgin field in medicine in Guyana. She enjoyed growing and learning with the development in the field; discovering new diagnostic methods, new therapies, understanding management of opportunistic infections. However, above all, she says that the most important thing she learnt was to “be less of a doctor and more of a human”. She said some of the most important things she learned were to be a better listener, more patient, less judgmental, more compassionate, and overall, her experiences have made her a better person.

Dr Ramos’s most significant achievement over the years has been having the privilege of motivating and supporting patients in some of the darkest moments of their lives, giving them hope and reassuring them. This has given her great joy, to see many of her patients lead productive lives and have undetectable viral loads. She said, “To see little children, now grown up, having healthy children of their own, that gives me great satisfaction, and I call it success!”.

Dr Ramos hopes that HIV can be integrated into healthcare as just another chronic disease in the future. She hopes that stigma and discrimination will be eliminated from both the medical community and society at large. She hopes that there will be better treatment options developed and that maybe one day, we will even have a vaccine to prevent HIV infection and relegate HIV to the history books.

Dr Ramos says to young doctors thinking about entering the field of HIV medicine, “If you want to be challenged every day, to keep exercising your brain and never be bored, go for it!”. She says that because HIV and infectious diseases are continuously evolving, it is imperative to keep updated.

Dr Ramos stresses the importance of staying humble as no one person will live long enough to understand all the mysteries of the human body and the diseases that can affect us. She says that she has had a most rewarding career and “I could never regret the day I decided to become an HIV physician!”

Caribbean Youth to benefit from UNFPA Sexuality Education Initiative

Youth in the Caribbean will benefit from Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) activities launched by the UNFPA in a virtual webinar in February. CSE programmes enable young people to protect their health, wellbeing and dignity and are a strategic vehicle for promoting gender equality and human rights. The activities will be conducted under the Spotlight Regional Programme for the Caribbean which is part of the wider Spotlight Initiative (SI), a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030.

The webinar provided an outline of the CSE activities to be implemented, and participants were allowed to provide inputs in accelerating the planned efforts. The effects of COVID-19 in the education sector that might also put at risk the continuity of the CSE delivery through Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) were also discussed.

Director and Representative for the UNFPA Sub-Regional Office of the Caribbean, Alison Drayton, who welcomed participants to the launch, highlighted that Caribbean youth’s growth and development continued to be undermined by what she called “new manifestations of age-old threats”. She identified several CSE challenges being faced by Caribbean youth. She expressed that vulnerability to all forms of violence, particularly bullying, sexual violence, abuse and exploitation and adolescent pregnancy rates remained very high.

Highlighting the role of the CSE initiatives in addressing these issues, the Director explained that strengthening regional capacities to advocate for and deliver quality CSE for in and out of school youth in the Caribbean was at the heart of the Regional Spotlight Programme. “The Comprehensive Sexuality Education interventions, through the Spotlight Initiative, are informed by robust evidence and aim to contribute to the collaborative efforts in preventing violence against women and girls in the Caribbean,” she said.

The CARICOM Secretariat is one of the organisations that has partnered with the UNFPA on this initiative and is playing a significant role in implementing the Spotlight Regional Programme for the Caribbean.

Helen Royer, Director, Human Development, CARICOM Secretariat, said the implementation of a regional HFLE curriculum, the creation of resources and toolkits, training of teachers to communicate the curriculum, and improved coordination among all the agencies at the regional and national levels are among the outcomes of CARICOM’s efforts at strengthening HFLE. Despite those investments, she was concerned that the key messages of HFLE were still not being converted into measurable behaviour change.

Against that backdrop, Ms Royer said CARICOM welcomed the Spotlight Initiative to enhance regional capacities to advocate and deliver quality Comprehensive Sexual Education.

“The interventions are aligned with the hopes for healthy and contributing Caribbean citizens, as outlined in the CARICOM Human Resource Development 2030 Strategy and are also in support of the recently launched Road map by PAHO for promoting the health and wellbeing of adolescents and youth in the Caribbean which received CARICOM’s support and endorsement,” Ms Royer stated.

UNFPA works with governments, civil society and other partners to implement CSE. UNFA also promotes policies for and investments in comprehensive sexuality education programmes that meet internationally agreed standards. This initiative is financed through funding from the European Union and UN agencies through the Spotlight Initiative.

COIN launches “Caribbean United against Gender-based Violence – GBV”.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has resulted in a surge in cases of violence against girls and women in the Region.  In response,  the Centro de Orientación e Investigación Integral (COIN) with support from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs has launched “Caribbean United against Gender-based Violence – GBV”.

The goal of the project is to address the root causes of GBV in the Caribbean and to contribute to the end of violence against women and promote equitable environments.

Santo Rosario, Executive Director, COIN expressed that “One of the biggest problems in the international framework has its roots in the cultural and educational processes of our societies, which place women in a situation of vulnerability compared to men. Gender inequality is a structural problem that requires that all the structures of the state and civil society recognize the implicit bias as well as the explicit discrimination that exists and promote laws and mechanisms that transform the way women are seen and treated. We must do segmented politics, as GBV is reflected in each one of the segments: at work, in politics, and relationships, as women are vulnerable in all these spheres. Policies, mechanisms and sanctions must be developed that accompany a new educational perspective that places women in a position of equality.”

The project will support the creation of an enabling environment through a series of community-level small grants that will include four types of interventions:

  • Change social norms: baseline surveys, training for men and boys that address socio-cultural attitudes that lead to GBV and social-emotional learning programmes.
  • Build institutional capacity and alliances: training with civil society organizations as well as with government entities, the establishment of multi-stakeholder discussion spaces and participation in networks.
  • Empower youth: empowerment and leadership training and direct involvement in local project activities as advocates against GBV.
  • Improve availability and access to services: mapping of existing services, securing MOUs among project sub-recipients and service providers, the establishment of a referral system and multi-stakeholder case management system.

In particular, these interventions aim to strengthen the capacity of local actors to provide GBV prevention and response services to survivors of abuse, improve available data on the services that are already put in place and reduce socio-cultural attitudes that lead to GBV.  The project also aims to strengthen civil society and local governments’ abilities to improve access to GBV services and address GBV issues that result from the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The project will be implemented through small grants to local organizations in twelve Caribbean countries, namely:  Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Editor’s notes:

In the Caribbean, available data shows a troubling panorama: three of the top ten recorded rape rates in the world occur in the Caribbean[1] , and in nine Caribbean countries, 48% of adolescent girls’ sexual initiation was forced or “somewhat forced”[2]. Some examples include the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which, according to the UNDP, are among the four countries with the most significant gender inequality in the Region. Kay Fanm, a Haitian women’s rights organization, has estimated that 72% of Haitian girls have been raped. In the Dominican Republic, there is an average of 177 femicides (killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender) per year since 2005.

[1] 2007 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the LAC region

[2] According to a survey that was pointed to in the 2007 report aforementioned.

National AIDS Coordinating Committee collaborated with NGOs for Continuity of HIV Services during COVID-19

In managing the national response to HIV and AIDS in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the National AIDS Coordinating Committee Secretariat (NACC) recognizes that conditions arising from natural disasters and other threatening events have the potential to disrupt service delivery in the continuum of care.

At the onset of COVID-19, the NACC, through its Secretariat, met with agencies to assess how service delivery was being impacted and identify the needs for further support. Information was provided to NGOs to mitigate the impact of restrictions that affected access to care. The most vulnerable, including People Living with HIV (PLHIV) were identified and the NACC worked with NGOs to facilitate the distribution of hundreds of relief food hampers, “baby bags”, hand sanitizers and face masks to those in need.

This relief effort was also augmented by networking with UN Agencies and other NGOs and agencies to provide a sustained flow of social intervention. The national response to HIV and AIDS during COVID-19 could not have happened without networking and collaboration by all stakeholders.

“Communities must take an active role in response to public health threats like HIV and COVID-19” – World AIDS Day 2020 Message – Dr Nikkiah Forbes

World AIDS Day is commemorated on 1 December every year since its initial observance in 1988.  It is an opportunity for global unity to show support for People Living with and affected by HIV, to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and to remember those who lost their lives to AIDS.

This year introduced us to a new virus called COVID-19 that emerged and caused a pandemic. We saw firsthand how pandemics affect health, lives and our way of life. COVID-19 highlighted the relationship between health, socialization and the economy. We saw how a pandemic could threaten access to healthcare, especially to vulnerable communities and those facing inequalities. We saw how global supply chains bringing medications and lifesaving commodities could be disrupted with shutdowns in global trade and travel. COVID-19 showed us and reminded us that we must be resilient, united and work together to see an effective response.  With this in mind, this year’s World AIDS Day theme is “Global solidarity, shared responsibility”.

Global solidarity, shared responsibility speaks to the importance of all communities actively taking a role in response to public health threats like HIV, AIDS and COVID-19.

We have learned valuable lessons over time in our work in HIV and AIDS. These lessons include working together to offer people-centred services, leaving no one behind and reaching persons where they are.  We have learned that we must fight stigma and discrimination and address health inequalities to achieve the best outcomes and best lives for People Living with HIV (PLHIV).  Those lessons and services centred around such fundamentals allowed resiliency and ongoing HIV care in the face of COVID-19.  These are some of the best practices that are the cornerstone of work in the Bahamas National HIV/AIDS Centre and Programme that have resulted in overall declines in new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths.

Indeed our work in HIV and AIDS is a lesson in what we can do and accomplish when we all work together. For us to continue to make strides in our response, there needs to be a unified global response. The health response, including HIV and AIDS, must be fully funded and financed. All aspects must be strengthened, including the supply chain of antiretroviral therapy and access to innovative testing modalities. Health care workers providing care must be supported. Health systems require strengthening. Access to medicines and vaccines must be equitable and assured. Human rights for all must be respected. This requires committed and dedicated leadership. Every one of us plays a role as well.  Shared responsibility reminds us of the fact that what we all do matters and that we must make a collective effort along with the efforts of governments, civil society and others for the best response and the best possible outcomes.

Equals Barbados continued vital community services during pandemic

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with the ending of USAID/PEPFAR funding in Barbados to create a perfect storm of potentially huge disruption of HIV service provision by the key population-led civil society organisation, Equals Inc.

At the time, Equals, with USAID/PEPFAR funding and under a shared care paradigm with the Barbados Ministry of Health and Wellness, provided wide-reaching and national HIV and STI testing, treatment and HIV PrEP at their community site. With the onset of lockdown in late March, on-site services were shut down, but persons on PrEP and receiving antiretrovirals for treatment were followed up via phone calls and messaging by the Equals team, who arranged delivery of multi-month medication supplies, telemedicine consults and donated food hampers sourced from donations and an external grant.

Outreach workers intensified online engagement (which has always been a strong point of the organisation) and psychosocial counselling, which was especially needed, moved online. After approximately three months of lockdown, these measures enabled the site to reopen with testing uptake almost on par with pre-pandemic levels and continued alliance with the vulnerable community served.


Editor’s note: EQUALS is an LGBTQI+ organisation that helps communities to access services through rights-based advocacy. The goal of Equals is to educate and empower the LGBTQI+ community to foster unity by providing a safe, discrimination-free environment.  In this environment, Equals encourages safe sexual practices and access to services in areas such as sexual health, general health and mental health. Equals also serves as an educational outlet by providing general information that is catered to the community. In addition, Equals works to improve the quality of everyday life for the LGBTQI+ community by tackling stigma and discrimination through sensitisation training and human rights violations case recording. The organisation strives to achieve its goals through community empowerment, education, networking and rights-based advocacy.

For more information visit https://equalsbarbados.com/