MUMBA MWANSA, Lusaka
EVERY year, over 30 million people worldwide enter and leave prison systems and these people are five times more likely to have HIV compared to adults outside prisons, says the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Of the affected inmates, the HIV prevalence is usually higher among women.
The UNODC states that the HIV incidence among women in prisons is almost always higher than that of men.
Agness Chilufya, a 45-year-old female inmate at Lusaka Central correctional facility only discovered that she was HIV positive in January this year after spending a month in prison.
“I was a business woman and when I heard about HIV, it never occurred to me that I could ever be infected or affected. And I never even wanted to undergo any of those tests. When I was locked up, I was forced to take an HIV test, which fortunately came out negative. And I thought I was safe,” she narrated during the Zambia Correctional Service (ZCS) commemoration of World AIDS Day.
Little did Agness know that the virus that causes AIDS has an incubation period during which time medical tests can’t detect its presence in the body. This is why when she repeated the HIV test a month later, it came out positive.
It so happened that when she was scheduled to appear in court, she couldn’t because her health had deteriorated, despite having tested HIV negative.
That’s how Agness had to repeat the test and get results that shocked her.
“When I was locked up, I appeared before the court in January 2017 but I was too weak to stand. Hence, the court gave me chance to go to the hospital for a check-up. That is how I was found HIV positive at CIDRZ [Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia] and it had reached an advanced stage,” she recalls.
At that time, Agness was susceptible to a number of opportunistic infections because her diagnosis was done late – when her body was too weak to fight infections.
“I was taken to UTH [University Teaching Hospital] and by then, my weight was as low as 28kg. At that point, I could literally do nothing on my own but the other inmates and officers were there to help me,” Agness says.
Now she is back on her feet and was able to celebrate World AIDS Day.
However, she is grateful to God for sparing her life and according her a second chance to live. She says the ZCS, CIDRZ and other co-operating partners have helped her to come to terms with her condition and lead a positive life despite being HIV positive.
“Because of the encouragement I received, I started taking the medication and here I am today, looking better and healthy because God gave me chance to live and to be a testimony to others. I am very grateful for the care and support rendered to me by the [Lusaka Prison Female Correctional Facility] officer in-charge Patricia Nanyangwe,” she said.
Agness is one of the many prisoners living positively with HIV. The ZCS decided to commemorate World AIDS Day in the prison community, echoing Zambia’s commitment to eliminating HIV and AIDS by 2030.
ZCS has taken the anti-HIV campaign to the prison community where they are providing treatment and also sensitising inmates on HIV prevention.
The ZCS Commissioner general Percy Chato said during the commemoration, which was themed ‘Ending AIDS by 2030 starts with me’, that there are about 2,450 prisoners who are on the anti-retroviral therapy, while 166 are on tuberculosis treatment.
“Our commitment is based on the premise that the inmates will one day leave prison to join the mainstream community and if they leave prisons unhealthy, they are not likely to contribute positively to the development of their communities,” Mr Chato said.
He said 90 percent of inmates who are living positively and are on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) are at a performance level of at least 85 percent.
“With the policy of ‘test and treat’, I wish to direct the health directorate to ensure that 10 percent of the inmates who are not on ART are initiated,” he said.
In 2009, In-But-Free conducted a scientific research which revealed that the HIV prevalence in Zambia’s prisons stood at 27.3 percent, which is more than double that of the general population in the country.
In its quest to eliminate HIV within the prisons by 2030, the ZCS is providing educational and communication materials about HIV, screening inmates for tuberculosis and providing ART as well as offering care and support to patients.
And UNODC national coordinator Sharon Nyambe says there is need for increased conversations with key partners in the criminal justice system, judiciary and law enforcement agencies if HIV/AIDS is to be completely eradicated by 2030.
“Agencies like Drug Enforcement Commission, Immigration, Police, Department of National Parks, ZCS and partners in the health sector must speak to each other,” she said.