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”.

JASL increases support for clients during COVID-19 Pandemic

Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL) remained open to serve its clients during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organisation modified its treatment, care and support programme to respond to the needs of their clients and received assistance through soliciting donations and writing proposals for small grants to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

COVID-19 resulted in clients losing their jobs and not being able to provide for themselves and their families. These clients needed money including a travel stipend to attend the clinic, nutritional support and care packages including sanitisation items. Loss of employment, lack of basic living support and depleting nutritional supplies are the main issues that undermined clients’ adherence to medication. To play its part and ensure that the gains made with adherence and viral suppression of its clients were not eroded, JASL quickly sprang into action and launched an initiative geared towards “Helping us to help People Living with HIV (PLHIV) during this time of crisis.” Specifically, it tried to assist clients by providing financial assistance, nutritional support and care packages.

JASL called local organisations and submitted proposals to international donor agencies to provide financial and other support. Executive Director of JASL, Kandasi Levermore expressed that “we cannot negate the importance of nutritional support in maintenance of optimal care and as such, JASL seeks to ensure that each of our clients is provided with holistic “love, action and support.” Many of these clients were not able to access the benefits from the Government of Jamaica’s CARE Programme.

Assisting JASL’s clients, including PLHIV has helped to address some of the clients’ socioeconomic challenges so that they were not distracted from continuing their ARV regime. PLHIV who are adherent to their ARVs will optimise their immune system and improve their chances to fight against the symptoms of COVID-19.

During the pandemic, JASL also engaged in other COVID-19 response efforts. The organisation developed its Infection Prevention and Control Protocol which was implemented to protect its staff and clients from COVID-19 and other infectious agents. Employees were adequately equipped with the requisite personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19 and clients were provided with masks, temperature checks and sprayed with hand sanitisers upon entering the treatment sites.

The organisation also suspended all community interventions and amplified one-on-one peer testing by appointments only at the organisation’s offices or at locations convenient to people who want to be tested.

JASL’s treatment, care and support programme remains grounded in the organisation’s strategic objective to improve the health outcomes of over 800 clients accessing services at three treatment sites in Kingston, St. Ann and Montego Bay.

JASL continues to provide relevant services for clients while the pandemic unfolds as the organisation is committed to improving their health outcomes.

The organisation is encouraging individuals and companies to support their work and the cause by calling its head office on 876-925-0021 or donating at NCB Knutsford Branch 351813768.

COVID-19 and its effect on vulnerable groups especially women and girls

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives globally, causing a significant struggle for vulnerable populations, particularly our women and girls.

This impact on our vulnerable groups only reinforces the inequity that exists, which we addressed during our United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) side event in September 2019. The inequalities were always present, COVID- 19 is only exposing them even more so now. Regardless of the situation, “women and girls are negatively and disproportionately impacted by disasters and conflict” (UNFPA and UN Women).

Moreover, COVID-19 has put the most vulnerable populations at higher risk due to the confinement measures and economic stresses that tend to reinforce abusive behaviour. According to UN Women, emerging data shows that since the outbreak of COVID-19, physical and sexual violence against women and girls (VAWG) has intensified.

Fortunately, despite challenges, there are immense opportunities: my experience as Belize’s Special Envoy for Women and Children and Chair of SCLAN has cemented my belief in the power of collaboration.

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

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Over 10 000 persons benefit from PANCAP – PAHO Webinars

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PAHO/WHO Sub-regional Office for the Caribbean collaborated with the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP) on a series of webinars which aimed to provide effective, timely and relevant information to the Caribbean on a wide range of topics relating to COVID-19 and HIV. The webinars were aimed at diverse audiences and served to provide updates on new scientific evidence and to share evidence-based frameworks and strategies as well as successful and innovative implementation experiences for the prevention and management of COVID-19.

PANCAP and PAHO have been intentional in combining presenters who are experts in technical areas with regional presenters on successful Caribbean implementation experiences. This approach provided an understanding of evidence-based frameworks and how these can be applied to the local context.

The webinars conducted from March to May 2020 have reached over 10,000 persons.  Participants have the option of joining the live sessions or viewing the recording on the PANCAP and PAHO Facebook pages as well as the PANCAP website and YouTube Channel.  Participants’ engagement with the webinars has been high. Organisers have received positive feedback on the relevance of the knowledge shared and the expertise of the presenters. A recent post-webinar survey revealed that 98.5% of participants gained new knowledge, while 100% indicated that the information presented was useful to their work.  In addition, 95% of participants stated that they would utilise the new knowledge in the execution of their work programmes.

The two entities will continue this successful collaboration with the overarching aim of providing critical knowledge for the Region’s response to COVID-19.

The Caribbean’s Remarkable Response to COVID-19

The Caribbean has been commended globally by the World Health Organisation (WHO), CNN and BBC for its outstanding handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. How did the Caribbean do it? As with everything, it begins with leadership. At the helm was a woman who led with distinction.  The Hon. Mia Amor Mottley, Chair of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Prime Minister of Barbados, was proactive and impressive in her harnessing of the region’s technical expertise and resources to the region’s benefit as well as Barbados. This resulted in effective and timely communication buttressed by carefully crafted messages from reliable sources to the populations of the region.

The region’s containment of this unrelenting virus is due in large measure to the effective teamwork of our agencies and their expert staff. CARICOM, PANCAP, PAHO, CARPHA, CMLF all executed an excellent containment strategy. Their sterling efforts, combined with a poised approach by all of these tireless teams is nothing short of exemplary. Kudos to ALL concerned for sharing the critical information responsibly to save many lives and so avoid overwhelming our health care systems that proved to be more efficient and organised to cope with this pandemic than many larger more powerful nations.

This is not new to the region. The Caribbean and its resilient people have a track record of leading the world in their response to epidemics and pandemics: The Caribbean was the first area of the world to eliminate polio and measles; Cuba became the first country in the world to achieve the elimination of Mother-to-child Transmission of HIV and Syphilis and on World AIDS Day 1 December 2017, six Caribbean territories and states joined Cuba in that achievement.

Our leaders, medical professionals at all levels, labs and all frontline workers, have acted decisively, worked unselfishly and helped keep us safe across the Caribbean.

We salute you and thank you!

CMLF’s critical role in the Region’s COVID-19 response

COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed the world; laboratories are not immune to this change.

The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has laid bare the critical importance of accurate, reliable and timely laboratory testing for diagnosis, patient care and management.

It took COVID-19 to teach us, perhaps, one of the most striking lessons of the pandemic: the urgent need for scaling up testing to identify those infected, to prevent further spread and reduce harm.

Through online training, the Caribbean Med Labs Foundation (CMLF) assisted countries in ensuring quality management systems for accurate and reliable COVID-19 results.

As early as March, CMLF had pinpointed the crucial role of laboratories (article here).  As it has done for more than a decade of its work on strengthening laboratory services in the Caribbean, the Foundation provided vital information for Ministries of Health, laboratories and health care providers to help guide their decisions.  This guidance addressed options for, and benefits of COVID-19 testing to identify persons infected who require treatment and for surveillance of those who may have been infected and recovered.

CMLF also emphasised that COVID-19 illustrated the urgent need for regional governments to adopt national laboratory policies, enact legislation to improve quality and resourcing of public laboratories and monitor the quality of private laboratories to ensure readiness to address public health threats.

CMLF has assisted the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) to identify COVID-19 laboratory tests and supplies.  To ensure that other critical regional health interventions continue in light of severe supply chain disruptions globally, CMLF continues to collect and share data with partners on regional HIV and Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) reagent stocks.  The goal is to ensure that HIV and STI diagnostic, treatment and care services continue during the COVID-19 pandemic.