GENDER FOCUS with MWAZIPEZA CHANDA
PLANS for door-to-door testing for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) should help more people come to terms with the reality of disease.
Last week Government announced an ambitious plan to undertake district wide testing and counselling campaign as part of the AIDS week programme.
As part of the World AIDS Day activity that falls on December 1, Zambia Daily Mail shared some global statistics on AIDS and it was quite discouraging to realise that a great number of our readers were of the view that the figures were exaggerated.
One reader asked how possible it was for 1,440 women to get infected by HIV every day. Unfortunately these numbers are real. In fact the reality might be worse as most sexually-active youths and adults have never tested for HIV. Only 35 percent of women and 20 percent men have been tested.
This yearâ€™s AIDS day theme is Zambia @50, Towards Zero Stigma.
Minister of Community Development, Mother and Child Health Emerine Kabanshi says stigma has been identified as one of the main barriers to universal access and utilisation of AIDS-related services.
â€œTo stigmatise is to label someone: to see them inferior because of an attribute or condition they have. The causes of stigma include insufficient knowledge about HIV, misbeliefs and fears about HIV transmission, moral judgment about people living with HIV and fears about disease and death,â€ she said.
During the launch of the AIDS week, Ms Kabanshi said it was important for people to know their HIV status by getting tested regularly and that more information needed to be shared on all the treatment options that were now available.
Zambia has benefitted from global partnerships in the health and development sectors that has seen millions of United States dollars being pumped into trainings, community mobilisation, research, and distribution of medical treatments, establishment of laboratories and health facilities and networking in a bid to mitigate the effects of the AIDS pandemic.
Acting country co-ordinator for the US Presidentâ€™s Emergency Plan for Relief (PEPFAR) Tamu Daniel says Zambia is clearly on a solid path towards an AIDS-free generation and is paving the way for other countries to follow.
However, he also points out that stigma is a barrier to ending HIV in Zambia.
â€œWe need to create a supportive environment in which every Zambian is encouraged to be tested and confident in the support they will receive, if they test HIV positive.â€
It is very difficult to fight stigma when, by its nature, HIV is out to kill us. Testing positive is not a positive experience even if we know that a positive result is not a death sentence. It is a difficult reality that many people do not want to face. That is probably why so many people opt out of testing.
Sitting in the queue to get an HIV test has become an annual norm for me and I honestly think I am probably still going for HIV tests simply because I have not yet tested positive.
There is generally a pattern behind the HIV test â€œgameâ€. There will be six to 12 of you seated outside a reception area – be it at the clinic or testing site. All avoiding eye contact but all sharing a sense of companionship and anxiety as you prepare to take the plunge.
The HIV voluntary counselling and testing routine means that you spend a minimum of 30 minutes at the place.
One by one you troop into a confined area, fill in the forms, have the chat, get tested and then wait for the results.
As is expected there are sure to be negative and positive results and you can almost always see who has walked away â€œcleanâ€ and those who are pretending to be okay.
I have always thought about how I would react to testing positive. I have friends who are living with HIV and I have known people who have been brought back from the brink of death, once they started taking anti-retro-viral drugs and changed their lifestyle.
Knowing that you can live with HIV is very different from accepting that you can live with HIV. Surely, do we still have to be reminded that shaking hands or sharing a meal will not transmit HIV?
Worse still, is the tendency of couples to seek divorce on account of a HIV positive diagnosis or, more painfully, a spouse concealing their status.
Many people and often even children and young adults stop taking life-saving ARVs, simply to avoid stigma.
On a daily basis you hear testimonials of people living with the HIV virus on TV, the radio, magazines and newspaper, but you always worry about whether you can be that strong or lucky – but we just have to be.
Stigma is nothing but fear of the unknown and that that is why we need to empower ourselves with knowledge. Knowledge of our HIV status, treatment and the disease.
I love the 990 toll free line. I know so many people who even after going through counselling have benefitted from having a number to call â€“ where they can get answers to all those small questions at the back of our minds regarding AIDS.
Even stupid questions get answered – when I was growing up we were told that wearing two condoms at a time could greatly reduce your chances of getting infected. I shudder to think how many people exposed themselves to the risk of HIV infection by following bad advice.
It is unacceptable that 30 years into the AIDS fight people can still discriminate against those living with HIV.
We need more champions and warriors to show us that it is true that one out of 10 of us is HIV positive and that it is okay.
You can still live an active life, get an education, get a job, get married and have children and even live to be a grandparent.
Let us really fight stigma, be it self-inflicted or driven by the community in which we live.
Beyond this week let us not fall victim to the fear of HIV and AIDS, Zambia has come far. We are a free nation and we should work hard to ensure our future children are born free from HIV.
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GENDER FOCUS with MWAZIPEZA CHANDA