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.

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/

SASOD Guyana Pivots its Human Rights Response Online, Adapting to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Between April and September 2020, and amidst the height of the COVID-19 pandemic locally, the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) Guyana has documented 30 cases in the Shared Incident Database (SID) with support from the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) through the multi-country Caribbean Global Fund Grant, “Sustainability of Services for Key Populations in the Caribbean.” Among the documented cases, 30% involve cyber-bullying against women, girls, LGBTQ+ persons, Persons Living with HIV, and marginalised youth, as compared to 0 reported cases of cyber-bullying for the same period in 2019, under the SID project supported by CVC. Client intake, as well as counselling services, are now being done virtually to reduce the exposure risk to COVID-19. SASOD Guyana developed a protocol for virtual client intake and case management in keeping with the SID protocol, that was approved by CVC, considering the pandemic.

As at 31 October 2020, SASOD Guyana has resolved 70% of these 30 client cases for the 6-month period through referrals to pro-bono lawyers, filing and serving of restraining orders, seeking public assistance, land applications, securing emergency housing, permanent relocation, among other forms of redress.

In June 2020, SASOD Guyana launched a social media campaign dubbed #IssaCyberCrime to increase public knowledge on the Cyber Crime Act of Guyana, information on penalties for cyber offences, as well as support and access to justice for victims. This campaign, supported by the SID project, reached approximately 30,000 persons on social media between June and August 2020. Anecdotal evidence, especially feedback from new clients, indicates that this accessible form of human rights education allowed them to recognise cyber-crimes, know they are illegal and appreciate that redress and support services are available through SASOD Guyana. The campaign is especially critical since vulnerable populations find police processes very intimidating.

Public Health Champion – Vishnu Singh, Medical Student, St. George’s University

Vishnu Singh is a medical student at St. George’s University, Grenada. In this edition of the PANCAP Newsletter, he discusses his experiences as a medical student during the pandemic.  

“In early January, I travelled to California to study for my medical examination. By mid-March, I was mentally exhausted from studying for long hours every day and was eager to take the exam and return home. On my scheduled date, I endured the gruelling 8-hour long test, all the while thinking it would be over soon and worth it once I got home to relax. However, life threw a curveball, and when my exam was done, I was informed that Guyana’s airport would be closed to all incoming flights on the following evening due to COVID-19. I panicked to search for flights that would arrive before the airport’s closure. When I realised that it was impossible to arrive in Guyana on time, I was deeply disappointed. I followed the news daily to learn of any plans for repatriation flights.

Considerable time was spent communicating with consulates, filling out the repatriation form and waiting for feedback and then making arrangements to take my PCR test. It was tough for me to deal with the uncertainties, and I felt as though I was slowly losing my mind while waiting for good news. I decided to use that period to achieve some of my personal goals that were long overdue and also to take up some new hobbies, like meditation.

Finally, in mid-June, I was informed of my placement on a repatriation flight to Guyana. The flight itself was difficult, especially having to wear my mask for the entire time, but I knew it was necessary to stay safe, and I made it home in one piece. Upon return, I spent the first week at home under self-quarantine. An official from the Ministry of Health called me daily to check on me. I spent the next month trying to balance virtual classes and assist with the family business.

In early August, I returned to the USA via another repatriation flight to begin my third year of medical school. I was hesitant to start my training at such an unprecedented time, but I realised that medical assistance is needed now more than ever, and I must play my part.

Although COVID-19 posed many challenges for me, I constantly remind myself that my life could be much worse, and I should be grateful for all that I have. We need to remind ourselves of the positives and focus on the good things. I want to encourage you all to do this, stay safe and keep playing your part in this fight against COVID-19”.

UNDP provides nutritional support to HIV+, gay community due to COVID-19 measures

Image: Mr Jairo Valverde, UNDP’s Resident Representative, hands over food items to Dr Rhonda Moore, Director of the NAPS and Mr Joel Simpson, Manager Director of SASOD

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on Monday said it has provided $5.6 million worth of food items to make available nutritional support to Persons Living with HIV (PLHIV) and members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender plus (LGBT+) community in Guyana.

“PLHIV and LGBT+ persons are among the most vulnerable and marginalized in any society. At the time of COVID-19 and its mandatory containment measures, the challenges facing these groups are further exacerbated. Given their overrepresentation in the informal labour market, they are faced with increased food insecurity and livelihood challenges,” the UNDP said in a statement.

The National AIDS Programme Secretariat (NAPS) and Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) are partnering with UNDP to ensure that much-needed relief is delivered to individuals and households from key population groups in Regions 3, 4, 5 and 6.

The NAPS will also pair the delivery of food items with the distribution of Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) to PLHIV to ensure that persons are still accessing and following their treatment while at the same time boosting and maintaining or supporting a strong immune system.

While receiving the food items, Director of the NAPS, Dr Rhonda Moore, noted that UNDP’s support is part of a wider initiative to address food insecurity for members of the PLHIV key populations. In expressing appreciation, she noted that NAPS is partnering with several Civil Society Organizations to reach persons across Guyana and UNDP’s support will specifically target families as against individuals, especially where key population members are expected to contribute to their households.

Managing Director of SASOD, Mr Joel Simpson, noted that UNDP was one of the first international partners to respond to the needs of the LGBT+ community by supporting a socio-economic needs assessment of the LGBT+ population. The findings from that study were shared with key partners and would help to support fundraising efforts to respond to the impact of COVID-19.

Resident Representative, Mr Jairo Valverde, noted that UNDP is very happy to support vulnerable groups, who are affected disproportionately, as this is key to the United Nations mandate of leaving no one behind and reaching the furthest behind first.

CRN+ implementing strategies to support People Living with HIV during COVID-19

As COVID-19 continues to affect the Region, the Caribbean Regional Network of Persons Living with HIV and AIDS (CRN+) has collaborated with the UNAIDS Caribbean Sub-regional Office and PANCAP to address the challenges and advocate for People Living with HIV (PLHIV).

COVID-19 has severely affected CRN+, its country networks and partners. The organisation is particularly concerned about the lasting impact of COVID-19 on the Region and delayed projects intended to provide critical services for PLHIV. The delays have also affected proposed collaborations with National AIDS Programmes to address PLHIV at country-level.

Regular access to essential care and treatment for PLHIV has been challenged as health facilities have answered the call to respond to COVID-19.  Establishment and maintenance of alternative models for delivery of healthcare and medication for PLHIV must continue.

CRN+ has developed advocacy, communication and capacity building strategies to ensure the network of PLHIV organisations in the Region have the information and technical support needed to protect the health, wellbeing and rights of PLHIV at country-level.  CRN+ is receiving technical support from the UNAIDS Caribbean Sub-regional Office and PANCAP for this initiative.

With the development and implementation of these strategies, CRN+ intends to strengthen access for PLHIV to healthcare and human rights advocacy. The organisation will also seek to address alternative models for delivery of healthcare and medication by utilising a strategy titled – “How do we continue to work from a distance”.

The strategy would include social media messages and other approaches to reach PLHIV communities with limited or no Internet access through traditional means of communication such as newspapers, TV and radio.

There will be a particular focus on women and girls, which will encompass collaboration with the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW) Caribbean.  The approach will involve the provision of technical support for Women Living with HIV, adolescent girls and young women; work has commenced with the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana ICW Groups.

CRN+ will continue to advocate for alternative models for healthcare and access to medication including appointment spacing, multi-month medication filling, courier delivery or uplifting medication at HIV Network or CSOs.

Continue reading “CRN+ implementing strategies to support People Living with HIV during COVID-19”

Guyanese author launches COVID-19 children’s book

Guyanese author Ashley Anthony has launched a new children’s book on COVID-19 titled “Lia and Ellie talk about Coronavirus”.

Ashley is currently a sophomore student at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA, studying Biomedical Engineering and the History of Science, Public Health and Medicine.

The book was launched at the recently held PANCAP Youth Town Hall Meeting July 2020 and is available for free download on PANCAP.org.

Discussing her inspiration for writing the book with the Editor of the PANCAP Newsletter, she stated “I wrote this book as a final project for one of my classes last semester.  COVID-19 has been difficult on all of us, but it can be particularly challenging for children, especially if they don’t understand what’s happening. Having a discussion about COVID-19 can be difficult, but it is my hope that this book makes those conversations a little easier”.

Ashley is an avid writer with numerous published blogs and articles, most notably she wrote a weekly column in the Guyana Times on issues related to Global Warming, Adolescent Health and Rights, LGBT rights and the importance of valuing the contributions of youth.  She has also published a Science-Fiction book, “Mysterious Association and the VirtuGems”.

In addition, Ashley is a guest writer for the Yale Daily News and President of the Yale Boola Magazine.

Click here to read “Lia and Ellie talk about Coronavirus” on PANCAP.org.

National Family Planning Board partners with Faith Leaders to tackle discrimination against People Living with HIV

Image: NFPB’s Virtual Stigma Reduction Sensitisation Session

Through its ongoing partnership with the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC), the National Family Planning Board (NFPB) Enabling Environment and Human Rights Unit, based in Kingston, Jamaica conducted a virtual stigma reduction sensitisation session with 45 religious leaders in the Southern and Western parishes respectively.  The virtual meeting was organised by the Religious Site Facilitators in the western and southern parishes who mobilised participants, including two participants from Haiti and Panama.

The sessions were aimed at religious leaders in Kingston and the southeast parishes of the island and were designed by the JCC and the NFBP to help participants explore the intersection of HIV-related stigma and discrimination with COVID-19.

The JCC engaged Rosie Stone, an activist for People Living with HIV (PLHIV) and trained Positive Health, Dignity, and Prevention (PHDP) facilitator, to spearhead the sessions. The activities were planned as part of the faith-based organisation’s community efforts to work with the national HIV and AIDS response in Jamaica to reduce stigma and discrimination against PLHIV and vulnerable populations in their settings.

“COVID-19 has shown us that there is still an urgent need for innovative targeted tools and comprehensive strategies to accelerate progress for our vulnerable populations”,  stated Devon Gabourel, Director, Enabling Environment and Human Rights, NFPB.

“As we see positive efforts to fight COVID-19 in our region, we must use this dynamism to seek sustainable financing and reinforce partnerships that strengthen actions to protect women and girls”.