Jamaica AIDS Support for Life: Celebrating Its 25th Birthday in Style, and Despite Challenges

November 29th, 2016

Thursday, December 1 is World AIDS Day. This piece is my personal, small (and probably very inadequate) tribute to all the men and women who have worked so hard to establish, build and maintain a non-governmental organization that has had more than its fair share of trials and challenges: Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL).

25 Years of Love. Action. Support.

25 Years of Love. Action. Support.


This month, JASL has organized a hectic schedule of events celebrating its 25th Anniversary, including a Public Forum, Public Service Announcements, and a Research Dissemination Meeting, which I found illuminating. Last Friday (November 25) JASL members and clients joined the Silent Protest to commemorate the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women in the context of HIV; the two issues are closely related. Tomorrow (November 30) they will be conducting mass HIV testing in Ocho Rios, with an outside broadcast on the Barry G Show (Mello FM). Finally, on December 1, they will conduct a joint march with the National Family Planning Board (NFPB) and will hold their traditional candlelight vigil at the Girl Guide Association Headquarters. After which, the staff will no doubt collapse, exhausted!

Violence Against Women and Girls - and especially those who are deaf - is a huge risk factor in the context of HIV and AIDS. The UN Trust Fund supports a JASL program to bring awareness of this issue. (Photo: JASL)

Violence Against Women and Girls – and especially those who are deaf – is a huge risk factor in the context of HIV and AIDS. The UN Trust Fund supports a JASL program to bring awareness of this issue. (Photo: JASL)

The Public Forum (sponsored by the MAC AIDS Fund and the Elton John AIDS Foundation) discussed a range of issues affecting HIV prevention, treatment and care. JASL stays on top of all the new research, besides conducting its own studies, in order to bring the best care to its clients. At the forum Sheila Samiel and Dr. Tina Hylton-Kong of the Pan-American Health Organization shared thoughts on the World Health Organization’s new Treat All direction. Jamaica has recognized the importance of this approach and will begin implementing it in January 2017 (including JASL, of course).

What is Treat All? It simply means that all restrictions on eligibility for antiretroviral therapy (ART) among people living with HIV are removed. All populations and age groups will be eligible, whatever their CD4 count (this is a lab test that measures, in cubic millimeters, the number of white blood cells that fight infection, in a sample of a person’s blood). Previously, there was a threshold CD4 count above which patients were not eligible. It is critical for HIV patients to keep their CD4 count as high as possible. Based on the new guidelines, the number of people globally who will be able to access ART will increase from 28 to 37 million as a result of Treat All. UNAIDS estimates that 21 million AIDS-related deaths and 28 million new infections may be averted by 2030 – the year when it is hoped the global AIDS epidemic will finally end. By the way, there are an estimated 29,690 people living with HIV in Jamaica.

The always brilliant ASHE share their important messages at JASL's Public Forum. (Photo: JASL)

The always brilliant ASHE share their important messages at JASL’s Public Forum. (Photo: JASL)

The forum also addressed the somewhat controversial issue of self-testing for HIV – which is exactly what it sounds like. Note this does not provide a definitive diagnosis, and must be confirmed by a health worker. Self-testing began in the U.S. in 2012; only one rapid diagnostic test has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some countries are still considering introducing it, but in many others the jury is still out and there are no formal regulations. Executive Director of the NFPB Dr. Denise Chevannes-Vogel noted that the potential benefits and risks must be carefully weighed; but there are certainly benefits, especially for vulnerable populations such as sex workers, men who have sex with men and transgender people.

I mentioned earlier that JASL has, over the years, faced difficult challenges (not least the stigma and discrimination in society, which has not been fully eliminated to this day). As with almost every non-governmental organization in Jamaica, however, sustainability is critical. Dr. Kevin Harvey (now the Caribbean Regional Director of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, formerly with the Jamaican Ministry of Health) discussed the respective roles of NGOs, Government and the private sector in funding Jamaica’s continued response to the epidemic.

Executive Director of JASL Kandasi Levermore shares her HIV Prevention message for World AIDS Day. The theme is Hands Up for #HIVPrevention. (Photo: Facebook)

Executive Director of JASL Kandasi Levermore shares her HIV Prevention message for World AIDS Day. The theme is Hands Up for #HIVPrevention. (Photo: Facebook)

Jamaica is among those countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region that has been highly dependent on external funding for antiretroviral drugs for years. In 2010, Jamaica received 73 % of funding for its HIV response from external sources, 26% from the local public sector, and a minuscule 1% from private sources – certainly one of the most dependent countries in the Caribbean. By contrast, Cuba, the Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago received only 8%, 10% and 13% of HIV funding from external sources, respectively. Moreover, it was revealed (at a meeting of National AIDS Program Managers and Key Partners in March of this year in Trinidad) that HIV financing in general is currently under severe restraints. There are changes in the eligibility criteria for funding. Other factors include an increased focus on domestic financing, new and emerging health priorities and competing national priorities. Countries like Jamaica are especially vulnerable to any decrease in external funding, obviously; moreover, the Jamaican Government’s own investment in HIV treatment has not matched the burden of the disease. It will obviously be difficult for domestic financing to totally replace international financing in the short to medium term, Dr. Harvey noted. 

So, what is the answer? While the burden of HIV is decreasing, it is still significant. Jamaica still operates within a very tight fiscal space.The greatest opportunity for achieving sustainability for Jamaica’s HIV response is reducing new HIV infections. And we must take action on this now.

JASL’s tagline is “Love. Action. Support.” To me, the NGO’s founders and those carrying the torch forward embody this motto: courageous (yes, very courageous), diligent, selfless, and always caring for their clients. And I don’t mean simply caring for their medical needs; the organization has always placed a high priority on maintaining the human dignity and the rights of all Jamaicans, from all walks of life, living with HIV and AIDS. The psychological aspects of the disease can never be under-estimated. In terms of action, JASL has never been afraid to take a step out into the street – or wherever they are needed – to bring their services to the people wherever they are needed. Their outreach programs continue.

Happy birthday, JASL!

And just a little reminder, people: Get tested!

Contact Information: JASL’s Head Office is at 3 Hendon Drive, Kingston 20 (Executive Director: Kandasi Levermore). Tel: (876) 969-6597/0282. Website: www.jasforlife.org. Email: infojasl2010@gmail.com. You can find JASL on Facebook and on Twitter @JASLtweets

Regional Chapters: Kingston at 3 Hendon Drive (Regional Program Manager: Nichole Morris). Tel: (876) 925-0021; 551-1060; 376-2083. Email: nmorrisjasl@gmail.com

Ocho Rios: 2 Douglas Close, Ocho Rios, St. Ann (Regional Program Manager: Ava Neil). Tel: (876) 974-6461; 390-4298; 551-1067. Email: aneiljasl@gmail.com

Montego Bay: Van Haze Building, 16 East Street, Montego Bay, St. James (Regional Program Manager: Tyrone Ellis). Tel: (876) 940-7386; 298-0202; 376-1645. Email: tellisjasl@gmail.com

Love. Action. Support. (Photo: JASL)

Love. Action. Support. (Photo: JASL)









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