Tue | Jan 18, 2022

HIV alarm among homeless as infections jump 57%

Published:Wednesday | December 1, 2021 | 12:11 AMOlivia Brown/Gleaner Writer

Concern is growing about the incidence of HIV among Jamaica’s homeless population amid a 57 per cent rise in infections over seven years among a segment of society’s most vulnerable. Health ministry data show that the infection rate among the...

Concern is growing about the incidence of HIV among Jamaica’s homeless population amid a 57 per cent rise in infections over seven years among a segment of society’s most vulnerable.

Health ministry data show that the infection rate among the homeless rose from 8.8 per cent in 2010 to 13.8 per cent in 2017.

However, Alisha Robb-Allen, acting senior director in the HIV/STI Unit in the Ministry of Health & Wellness, said that greater attention to the homeless may have accounted for the significant jump in numbers.

“I think we’re doing much more work with the homeless in terms of screening. I think NCDA, as well as our civil society organisation, they really have ramped up a lot of screening and systematic screening of our homeless population, so that has shown an increase in the homeless population,” Robb-Allen told a Gleaner Editors’ Forum ahead of today’s commemoration of World AIDS Day.

The NCDA is the National Council on Drug Abuse.

The acting senior director is concerned that the homeless are more susceptible to rape and sexual abuse, thus putting them at greater risk for HIV infection.

Robb-Allen said discussions have begun on the provision of more support for the homeless, especially those who have no access to night shelters.

“It’s a general problem, not just for PLHIV (people living with HIV) that are homeless, but homeless persons in general have experienced some amount of abuse on an ongoing basis, and I think it’s something we need to have a greater review of to see, as a ministry, what are the next steps. It’s not a health issue, it’s a social issue,” she said.

Social stigma and privacy concerns have long been a deterrent to people accessing treatment, but Robb-Allen said geographical factors are also hurdles. Anecdotal accounts indicate that people living in rural communities face more disadvantages compared to those in urban settings. Fear that their HIV status might spark discrimination is said to cause many infected people to travel out of parish to access treatment.

Stipends are issued to offset some travel expenses, she said.

“In terms of access to services, and if you’re talking about prevention and treatment services, we do have both government and non-government entities as well as private physicians that offer HIV care within our rural settings and we have tried as a response to ensure that we expand our reach to as many health centres within the rural setting as possible,” Robb-Allen said.

olivia.brown@gleanerjm.com