World AIDS Day

Close your eyes for a second. Imagine that you have just been diagnosed HIV positive. Maybe you didn’t bother to indulge me, or maybe you reflexively retorted, “God forbid”. If you did close your eyes and imagine, thank you. Now, what did you see? Did you see yourself in and out of hospital for one ailment or the other? Did you see yourself losing your job and being ostracised by your community? Did you wonder, if you will ever experience the companionship of marriage, or the joy of your own children? If you did, those images probably vanished when you opened your eyes. But for many of the 39 million people living with HIV/AIDS, this is reality.

World AIDS day is here for the 35th time. We will write and share social media posts, walk to educate people and hand out flyers—all laudable efforts. If you’re reading this, I assume that you already know the basics -signs, symptoms and that infected people can be asymptomatic for years. So let’s talk about something else.

People living with HIV/AIDS do not live on Mars. They live here, amongst us, in our communities. The theme for this year’s World AIDS Day—Let Communities Lead—charges us to be the communities that make life better for people living with HIV/AIDS. Communities play a multi-faceted role in the AIDS scourge. The level of stigmatisation against people living with HIV/AIDS remains high even in 2023. The effects of this are quite ironic. See, HIV/AIDS stigma is associated with lower uptake of HIV testing services, non-disclosure and refusal to seek appropriate healthcare. This translates to higher transmission rates of the disease. Thus HIV + stigma= more HIV.

The driving force for HIV/AIDS stigmatisation is ignorance. Somewhere right this moment, a person with HIV/AIDS is being ostracised, denied employment or harassed because people do not want to acquire the disease by relating with them. Local communities need to know that living and working with HIV/AIDS will not make them get the disease. They also need to know that people with HIV can lead full and happy lives.

Beyond stigmatisation, people need to know about HIV/AIDS to avoid risky practices and minimise the spread of the disease. They need to know that HIV is not only transmitted through sexual intercourse but also through unfortunate encounters with infected sharp objects (blades, barbing razors, etc) or transfusion of infected blood. The more people that know that post-exposure prophylaxis can still be administered after coming in contact with infectious material the better, just as the knowledge that with right treatment, children born to HIV positive mothers are not automatically infected is vital. Information is currency, and on the matter of HIV/AIDS the poverty is alarming.

People with HIV/AIDS do not live only in the cities. Everybody knows that to get reasonable healthcare in Nigeria, you have to go to a tertiary hospital, or at least a good secondary one, more often than not located in the urban settings. With testing and treatment facilities so far away, many many rural dwellers do not get to know their HIV status until it’s too “late” and even then, they do not get the treatment they need. We must advocate for basic healthcare everywhere, so that a person living with HIV/AIDS does not needlessly suffer through never-ending infections, and another baby is not made to live with the disease because antiretroviral therapy was not available to her mother.

Antiretroviral therapy is a lifelong commitment. Living with HIV/AIDS can be a lonely journey. Communities that do not stigmatise but provide support can make the road a little less bumpy and increase the quality of life for affected individuals. To make this a reality, we need to engage communities more than one day in a year. We need to recruit community leaders, peer societies, and trade associations into the HIV/AIDS advocacy. Only when everyone is onboard can we hope to make any significant difference.

Deaths from AIDS have dropped by almost 70% since they peaked in 2007. Still, AIDS takes a life every minute. The WHO aspires to end AIDS by 2030. With 1.3 million new infections just last year, this does not look achievable. But even if we do not end AIDS in 2030, we owe it to ourselves as much as we owe it to people living with HIV/AIDS to make our communities safe spaces.

What affects one of us affects us all.

Ibrahim Aisha

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