How an HIV Positive Advocate Shares His Story

by Alejandra Cabrera, PASMO

Freddy’s presence is quickly felt when he walks into a room. The tall 35-year-old Panamanian has a broad, warm smile and a booming voice when he speaks.

“Most of the time, clients go into shock or denial when I tell them their test for HIV is positive,” says Freddy, who has been a staff member of the Pan American Social Marketing Organization (PASMO) in Panama City for nearly four years.

In his current role as a supervisor and “online patient advocate” for USAID’s Combination Prevention Program in Central America, Freddy works to provide post-test counseling for reactive cases and supports linkages to confirmatory testing and comprehensive care services in Panama’s public health system, especially for men who have sex with men and transgender women.

“When I tell them that I’ve been living with HIV for over a decade now, it gives them hope that it’s not all lost,” Freddy says proudly. He’s played a key role in helping the Combination Prevention Program in Panama reach a rate of 88% for linkage to care in 2019. These results bringing Panama closer to aligning with UNAIDS’ global 95-95-95 goals—that by the end of 2030, 95% of people living with HIV will know their status, 95% of those who test positive are linked to care, and 95% of people who receive antiretroviral therapy have viral load suppression.

In Panama, the Program works online and in the field to identify at-risk individuals and refer them to HIV testing services at private laboratory partners that have been sensitized and trained to provide friendly and quality services for vulnerable populations. The labs set up adequate monitoring processes and quality control procedures, as well as coordination and communication channels. Private labs call Freddy to provide post-test counseling when a person’s test is reactive.

“It surprises clients to talk to someone who has been in that same situation before,” describes Freddy. Since he was diagnosed, he’s been healthy and has adhered to his antiretroviral treatment, helping him reach full viral load suppression.

“I think it allows them to trust me in helping them navigate the health care system and begin their treatment,” he says.

From October 2018 to September 2019, the Program in Panama reached a total of 2,477 at-risk individuals, of which 1,624 received HIV testing services and 14% had a reactive result—largely thanks to Freddy’s efforts.

Freddy places his hands comfortably on his lap, his fingers intertwined.

“Accepting one’s diagnosis isn’t easy,” he says, “but I’d like to think that by sharing my story, I can help people see that they’re going to be ok.”

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