Health campaigner: stay vigilant about Aids
A health campaigner is urging people not to be complacent about HIV and Aids — with more than 200 residents living with the infection today as a result of sexual contact.
Russ Ford, cofounder of the Supportive Therapy for Aids persons and their Relatives (STAR) charity, says while treatment has improved drastically since the 1980s and 1990s, some people remain involved in “risky activities”.
The Island recorded 25 deaths from Aids or HIV from 2010 to the end of 2014, including four last year: significantly down from the 20-plus annual deaths of the 1990s.
However, 301 people in Bermuda today are recorded as living with HIV or Aids, almost half of whom contracted it through heterosexual contact.
In an interview with The Royal Gazette, Mr Ford said much still needs to be done to increase awareness and tackle the stigma that is still associated with the conditions.
Giving his thoughts on the decline in HIV-positive diagnoses, he said: “I think it has to do with attrition.
“The education that was provided in the community through STAR predominantly and then through the Department of Health has taken traction over the years.
“I think that people were paying attention.
“But I also feel that nowadays because we've found so many treatments for HIV and Aids people are no longer looking at it as this gloom and doom anymore.
“They think, well, it's treatable and we're OK. But at the same time it remains a chronic disease.”
Mr Ford said that in the 1980s most of the people with HIV or Aids he dealt with were black males or intravenous drug users; however, he added: “I can tell you the face of Aids in Bermuda has changed.”
Statistics from the Department of Health show that, in 2014, 215 men and 86 women in Bermuda had HIV or Aids; 246 were black, with 55 white or others. The majority (188) were aged between 45 and 64, although three were under the age of 25.
A breakdown on how their conditions were contracted shows 131 were through heterosexual contact, 102 through males having sex with males, and 44 through injection drug use; four were mother-to-child transmission, three through exposure to blood and 17 unspecified. The true figures are expected to be higher because of undiagnosed or unreported infection, according to the Department.
Mr Ford, a former senior nursing officer in Bermuda's prisons, said that historically many people did not want to listen to his message that Aids is preventable.
“Seeing people shoot up and what have you, they didn't put much credence to that. They thought they deserved what they got,” he said.
“Yet there were persons that were involved in so-called normal sexual relationships, heterosexual relationships, that were coming down with HIV and Aids. Nowadays we find that a lot of the disease is related to sexually transmitted infections. Many of these diseases are treatable, but now that Aids has become treatable people say, ‘Well, it's not going to happen to me. I'm not a drug-user, I'm not gay.' So they exclude themselves. But they're involved in risky activities.
“I think I've already used my voice. Up to the point where it's hoarse. What I would say is remember that just because we've seen a reduction in the new cases of Aids in Bermuda, don't forget the history that precedes all of this here and why persons found themselves in this situation.
“More importantly, recognise that Aids is a preventable and treatable disease and do everything in their power to avoid contracting the virus. If they do contract it then there is help. There is help.”
Regarding the stigma surrounding Aids or HIV, Mr Ford said: “Bermuda's numbers are not really accurate. Many persons went overseas for treatment, or if they died the cause of death was not put down as Aids: it was put down as pneumonia or some other related illness.
“When you consider the amount of discrimination and stigma attached to it, I can understand why people would do that. Particularly living in Bermuda and it being such a closed society. Everybody knows everybody, so you reap consequences of disclosing that information and as much as you want to be open and honest about it the consequences are so real that people refuse to, so I can understand from that perspective.”
Mr Ford, who cofounded STAR in 1986 and also set up Bermuda's only hospice, Agape House, was recognised as a hero of the community by health minister Jeanne Atherden in a ceremony last week.