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World AIDS Day: Experts harp on need for HIV testing

It was tears and agony when Ajiri, a 25-year-old graduate of one of the Nigeria’s prestigious Federal Universities, tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in December 2018.

According to Ajiri’s narration, after the medical test, her doctor called her into his office and dropped the fatal message that she had tested HIV positive.

“I was very scared and dead inside; I broke down right there and then. I knew my life was over. Throughout that week, I was unable to sleep and eat. “Both parents of mine are negative. I am still learning to live with HIV; I know I have a lot more to go through with the disease,” Ajiri said.

“While at NYSC assignment, I was dating a guy who I did not really know and he was very cruel and knew of his status. I was enraged the most when I realised it was that guy that infected me.”

“I thank God for my Mummy for her advice and words of encouragement; she has been the only person that has been supporting me; she knows what I am going through now,” she said.

Ajiri’s is not an isolated case, because there are many Nigerians who are living with HIV. The disease has its challenges- the shock of knowing one is HIV positive and the initial confusion on how to handle are said to be destabilising. However, with proper management, those who live with the virus, like, Ajiri, can now lead a normal life without allowing HIV control them.

Each year, every December 1, the world marks World AIDS Day. On such occasion, Nigeria joins the rest of the world to show support for people living with HIV and to remember those who have died from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)-related illnesses.

The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day-‘Communities make the difference’-highlights the important opportunity to recognise the essential role that communities have played and continue to play in the AIDS response at the international, national and local levels.

Calling attention to the significance of communities, Gambo Aliyu, director-general of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), said that communities include networks of people living with or affected by HIV, women and young people, peer educators, counselors, community health workers, Civil Society Organisations (CSO), religious and traditional leaders, policymakers and activists.

“Communities are vital to facilitating an enabling environment that promotes equal access to HIV prevention, treatment and care services for Nigerians. They are also vital to safeguarding the rights of Nigerians living with HIV,” he said.

Nigeria’s HIV/AIDS epidemic: No stop in hope

Nigeria has shown steady progress on increasing access to treatment for people living with HIV, with the adoption of a test and treat policy in 2016.The results released in March by the Government of Nigeria indicate a national prevalence of HIV in Nigeria of 1.4percent among adults aged 15–49 years. Previous estimates had indicated a national HIV prevalence of 2.8 percent,signaling progress in the fight against the epidemic.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the National Agency for the Control of AIDS estimates that there are 1.9 million people living with HIV in Nigeria.

“HIV/AIDS is a very dangerous situation, but we have been able to control the level today, but we need to sustain that advantage,” said Musa Shaibu, chairman executive committee, Nigerian Business Coalition Against AIDS (NiBUCAA)

Nigeria’s statistics highlight those at risk 

While Nigeria’s national HIV prevalence is 1.4percent among adults aged 15–49 years, women aged 15–49 years are more than twice as likely to be living with HIV than men (1.9percent versus 0.9percent.) The difference in HIV prevalence between women and men is greatest among younger adults, with young women aged 20–24 years more than three times as likely to be living with HIV as young men in the same age group. Among children aged 0–14 years, HIV prevalence according to the new data is 0.2percent. Significant efforts have been made in recent years to stop new HIV infections among children.

At the national level, viral suppression among people living with HIV aged 15–49 years stands at 42.3percent (45.3percent among women and 34.5percent among men). When people living with HIV are virally suppressed they remain healthy and transmission of the virus is prevented.

OjoSikiru, a Lagos-based medical practitioner, said every Nigerian should know his/her HIV status, because with the drug treatment it can significantly reduce the risk of HIV infection from spreading.

“Men who have sex with men and have a partner with HIV, sexually transmitted infection (STI) and unsteadily use condoms, this set of people are considered the high risk of being infected with the disease,” Sikiru said.

“HIV testing is important to know one’s status, for increasing treatment and ensuring that all people with HIV are offered the preventive drug,” he added.

AIDS is a set of symptoms (or syndrome as opposed to a virus) caused by HIV. A person is said to have AIDS when his/her immune system is too weak to fight off infection, and such a person develops certain defining symptoms and illnesses. This is the last stage of HIV, when the infection is very advanced, and if left untreated will lead to death.

Where is the problem?

Stigma and discrimination still have terrible consequences. The very people who are meant to be protecting, supporting and healing people living with HIV often discriminate against the people who should be in their care, denying them access to critical HIV services, resulting in more HIV infections and more deaths.

“It is the responsibility of the state to protect everyone. Human rights are universal- no one is excluded- not even sex workers, gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, transgender people, prisoners or migrants. Bad laws that criminalise HIV transmission, sex work, personal drug use and sexual orientation or hinder access to services must go, and go now,” Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS executive director.

Sidibé said women and girls continue to be disproportionately affected. “It is outrageous that one in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence. We must not let up in our efforts to address and root out harassment, abuse and violence, whether at home, in the community or in the workplace,” the UNAIDS’ ED said.

Way forward

Gambo Aliyu, DG NACA, said that as Nigeria strives to achieve epidemic control; the efforts of communities are urgently needed to ensure “that HIV remains on the political agenda”.

He noted that the global AIDS response is at a precarious point—partial success in saving lives and stopping new HIV infections is giving way to complacency.

According to him, “At the halfway point to the 2020 targets, the pace of progress is not matching the global ambition. This report is a wake-up call—action now can still put us back on course to reach the 2020 targets.”

Sikiru, a medical practitioner (quoted above) suggested that: “Working more on raising awareness about the importance of knowing your status and ending all stigmas related to HIV testing will help curb the increasing prevalence.”

 

ANTHONIA OBOKOH

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