By Richard Bhainie
THE Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) has lauded the Government’s decision to implement self-testing for the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV) that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). At the launch of the National HIV Strategic Plan, on January 5, 2021, Minister of Health, Dr. Frank Anthony, announced that the government is looking to implement HIV self-testing in Guyana.
During an interview with the Guyana Chronicle on Wednesday, Managing Director of SASOD Guyana, Joel Simpson, commended the initiative and noted that SASOD is ready and willing to support the initiative by providing counselling services to persons impacted.
“It’s a laudable initiative because HIV self-testing is showing results in other parts of the world, and what’s great about HIV self-testing is that groups that usually don’t come forward to use HIV health services are using self-testing as a mechanism to know their HIV status,” Simpson explained.
Simpson highlighted that self-testing will aid in increasing coverage of HIV testing, and it will reach persons far and wide. Also, persons who are hesitant to access health services will be able to know their status, which will inevitably help to curtail the spread of HIV.
“It’s a very innovative and effective prevention strategy and I think it could be particularly targeted to those groups that are not reaching out to health services to get an HIV test,” he said. He explained that persons generally have concerns in relation to stigma and discrimination and are usually insecure regarding confidentiality of information they share during the HIV testing process.
Further, he noted that there is a known issue within the Caribbean region whereby persons, particularly men, refrain from utilising health services until they are drastically affected.
“So, this provides an opportunity to increase confidentiality and reach groups that are not coming forward and, if targeted to the right groups, it can increase access to HIV testing in Guyana,” Simpson explained.
Responding to the criticism of the initiative by some persons that Guyana is not equipped and ready for such an endeavor, primarily because persons would not be able to access counselling services when self-testing, Simpson opined that this is a misunderstanding.
He explained that the World Health Organization (WHO) guiding principles on HIV testing and counselling stipulates that testing and counselling should be voluntary and must adhere to the five Cs. The five Cs are consent, confidentiality, counselling, correct test results and connections to care, treatment and prevention services. In these regards, he noted that when the initiative commences, SASOD is ready and willing to provide counselling services and render psycho-socio support to persons of all gender and sexual orientation.
“We would be interested in the counselling part because we want to make sure that persons have counselling so that they are prepared for the results of an HIV testing if they test positive that they have the psycho-socio support that they need,” Simpson related. He is also hopeful that in rolling out the initiative, government will implement different methodologies in relation to counselling that are conducive to the success of the initiative, for example, a hotline initiative.
Simpson noted that organisations such as SASOD would be able to play an imperative role in marketing the initiative to particular groups that they work with due to relationships already established between organisations and persons who utilise their services. As such, he urged the ministry to connect with these groups that already provide social support and counseling to develop partnerships to foster the initiative.
“I would encourage the ministry and national programme to do extensive consultations with civil society groups who have been working in the HIV response and who know what’s happening on the ground and to involve those organisations as partners,” Simpson said.