10
Aug
09

The rise of HIV in the Deaf community

From The Jamaica Observer:

Officials at the Jamaica Association for the Deaf and the Jamaica AIDS Support are reporting a “huge” increase in the number of deaf persons contracting the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV) and engaging in risky sexual behaviour.

Reports of loose, multi-partner, unprotected sex, and what Jamaica AIDS Support officials call “inter-sexing”, which involves homo and bisexual intercourse, have emerged, as the organisation grapples to deal with the growing number of deaf clients on its hands.

Executive Director of the Jamaica AIDS Support (JAS) Stacy-Ann Jarrett said that while there were no statistics to support specific numbers, cases have been “growing ridiculously”, among all their target groups which include homosexual men, commercial sex workers, children and deaf persons. She confirmed that the organisation had been seeing a worrying increase in the number of deaf persons contracting the disease.

“We’ve learnt that this group is involved in a lot of inter-sexing and bi-sexuality. They seem to be a lot more sexual and don’t have the same kind of discrimination; they don’t seem to have the same kind of hang-ups about sex… We’ve realised that HIV and AIDS messages are not impacting on them. They seem to have a lot of myths. We’ve started having counselling with deaf same-sex practitioners,” she said.

She fingered the recent recession as a possible reason for the increase in the number of HIV infections among deaf commercial sex workers. “We had two commercial sex workers before the recession, now we have nine and this is within seven months.”

The Jamaica Association for the Deaf says it too has no official statistics on the number of deaf persons with the disease, but Public Relations Officer Marcia Anderson confirmed that a “huge number” of deaf persons were contracting the disease and “quite a number of them are commercial sex workers”. She said once the cases come to their attention, they do what they can through their social services department, then turn them over to the Jamaica Aids Support.

The situation is worrying officials at the association so much, that they have intervened to lift the awareness of HIV and AIDS among the deaf community. The organisation has launched a series of HIV prevention workshops, dubbed “Reducing HIV Vulnerability in Deaf Children” which uses dance and signing to spread the message of safe sex among especially school-aged deaf persons. A recently-concluded training programme, held at the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf in Knockpatrick, Manchester, saw 25 teaching assistants being trained to take the message into schools which accommodate students with hearing impairments.

The HIV Prevention message will be spread through a series of choreographed dance programmes, which Mrs Anderson told the Observer will be entered in the Jamaica Cultural Development Committee’s (JCDC) 2010 national dance competition. The best pieces will be chosen, and taken to the deaf community across the island, through its schools. Mrs Anderson said the project has the backing of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which pumped some $1.3 million into the programme.

Meanwhile, the Jamaica AIDS Support says it is working hard to dispel what Ms Jarrett calls the many myths plaguing the deaf community, which she insists is fuelling the rapid rate of infection among the deaf. “They have severe self-esteem issues, the deaf are constantly recording issues of sexual abuse. That is a big demon that plagues that group. So our support group work with them focuses on self-esteem building,” she said.

She said deaf clients have even reported being preyed on in their churches, by adults. “Some are taken out of church, and taken around a corner and somebody says to them, ‘I want sex’, if you’re being preyed on in this manner, how are you going to negotiate condom use?” She told the Observer that in addition to deaf persons, Christian married women were emerging as another vulnerable and neglected group. “They have a challenge insisting that their men use condoms”. She said the organisation has not yet figured out how to reach this group.

She told the Observer that her organisation had yet another problem group on its hands – it recently found a group of homeless gay men living on the streets. “We found about 15 of them in the Kingston and St Andrew area. Their families have thrown them out. Some of them are not even gay, but they were suspected homosexuals and they were beaten out of their communities. “

She said, given its limited resources, the JAS can only meet their basic needs of a bath and a meal. “Most of them are illiterate, they have no skills. What is particularly painful to me is that many of these people don’t live beyond the day. They come in and they go back out by 5pm, because we don’t have anywhere to put them. When they leave, you can’t know if they’re coming back, you don’t know if you’re going to see them again.”

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