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A. Sampson: HIV/AIDS And Stigmatisation In Nigeria

HIV/AIDS And Stigmatisation In Nigeria

By Akanimo Sampson, Port Harcourt

NKECHI and Preye, allegedly contracted the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) sometime in 1998, in one of the oil communities of the Niger Delta, Nigeria's main oil and gas basin. But while Preye is still alive and enjoying life, Nkechi has since been buried.She was buried a couple of months ago.

Nkechi did not die because of the virus. This political science undergraduate of 25, according to her friend, died mainly due to stigmatisation. She was rejected by her family, a subject of condemnation by her church, and treated as an Osu (outcast) by her community. Unable to bear it all, she gave up the ghost by allegedly taking poison.

Unlike Nkechi, Preye is rather lucky. He is happily married with two bouncing baby boys, both of whom are HIV negative, eventhough their mother is positive. Preye has effectively demonstrated to his larger family, church and community that people with HIV/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), are just like all of us. They show strength of spirit everyday. To avert continued premature deaths among them, we have to support them, care for them, and lend a helping hand.

For those who know better, stigmatisation means treating somebody in a way that makes them feel that they are very bad or not important. If this is anything to go by, we might not be entirely wrong if we submit that Nkechi’s family, her church and community are collectively guilty of her death. Perhaps, they were not aware that people living with HIV have a future and can live well. They can enjoy many happy years like Preye, with families, friends, and also plan their future with loved ones.

The death of Nkechi has thrown up a shocking realisation of sorts that many families, churches/mosques, communities and societies are not yet aware that HIV is not contracted through holding hands/hugging, insect bites, working and walking with people, coughing/sneezing, using toilets and bathrooms as well as food or utensils.

The virus is contracted through infected blood, dirty needles, mother-to-child transmission, and of course, unwholesome sex.

As of today, the HIV/AIDS pandemic is one of the most serious development problems facing Nigeria. It is not a medical or health problem. However, the first reported case of this development wahala was in 1986. Twenty years on, the pandemic has continued to spread at an unspeakable rate.

Statistics tend to indicate that the adult HIV prevalence has sky-rocketed from 1.8 percent in 1991 to 4.5 per cent in 1996. In 2001, the upward journey peaked at 5.8 percent, and nose-dived to 5.0 percent in 2003. The most affected segment of the population are said to be young people and people within the productive age bracket.

But the problem is not peculiar to Nigeria. HIV/AIDS is a global development crisis. Across Africa, the pandemic according to Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, Bayelsa State Governor, is threatening the stability and future of whole societies. “It is painful to witness the systematic devastation of lives on account of AIDS”, he said.

Adding, the governor said, “in Bayelsa, our citizens face a real menace that cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Today, this danger is made more manifest by the sheer indifference and complacency of the citizenry to a ravaging threat”

The Governor Jonathan administration however, believes that the pandemic can be overcome by prompting a deliberate reversal of the conditions that give room for an upsurge in the infection rate of the virus, and by orchestrating a show of compassion and tolerance towards those who have fallen victim to HIV/AIDS.

It however, seems that despite increased funding, political commitment and increased access to HIV management, the virus has continued to change character, exploiting new transmission channels which outpace global responses.

For instance, Development Reports published by the United Nations tend to indicate that by the end of last year, around 24.5 million adults and children were living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. In the course of that year, some two million people died of AIDS, leaving behind about 12 million orphaned African children.

As at last September, around 2.9 million people were living with HIV in Nigeria. Data analysts say this translates to some 3.9 per cent of the overall population. Fifty percent of this figure are said to be women, while 240,000 are children.

On the global level, a total of 36 million people as at 2005, were said to be living with HIV/AIDS. Out of this blood-chilling figure, 1.7 million were children. Around 2.8 million people died of HIV/AIDS in 2005 alone largely due to stigmatisation. On the average, 6,000 young people are said to be infected with the HIV virus every year worldwide.

And unless we, the Nigerian people do away with the habit of stigmatising our fellow country men and women living with HIV/AIDS, by 2008 it is estimated that some 3.6 million to 4.2 million of them would die, not so much of HIV/AIDS related causes, but of the stigma associated with the problem.

Perhaps, this should make every family, socio-economic and political elite, community and religious leaders to worry, and think more of how to design programmes and sanctions that can stem the tide of stigmatisation, and at the same time fashion out constructive interventions to subdue the prevalence of the virus.

Combating the menace of stigmatisation also calls for legislative action. The legislative arm of government at all levels should as a matter of national importance, review the effectiveness and efficiency of the various administrative and executive programmes on HIV/AIDS. For instance, this year’s budget made increased allocation to the health sector, with a substantial share of the allocation going to preventive and curative measures against HIV/AIDS. But the pandemic is not a health problem!

For now, Nigeria needs a legislation to prohibit discrimination against People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). Such a legislation should make it an offence for any person to discriminate against victims of HIV/AIDS. Expectedly, such a law will minimise the incidents of health workers refusing to administer treatment or acting discriminatorily against persons infected with HIV/AIDS.

Good enough, the Senate President, Ken Nnamani, seems to be persuaded. “We cannot wait for the cost of combating and controlling HIV/AIDS to become unbearable before we wake up and take effective actions against the problem”, he said, adding, “the time to act and act boldly, is now.” To what extent the major stakeholders would ''act now'' will be seen in the weeks ahead. There is need to save fellow citizens from the unbearable trauma of stigmatisation. ENDS


Note: Akanimo Sampson, is the Co-ordinator of Journalists for Niger Delta (JODEL), a media group concerned with the affairs of Nigerria's oil and gas region.

© Scoop Media

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