We need to renew the fight against HIV infection and stigmatisation

Uganda was one of the first sub-Saharan African countries to be affected by HIV/Aids. According to the 2011 Uganda Aids Indicator Survey, overall, 7.3 per cent of Ugandans aged 15 – 49 are HIV positive with HIV prevalence being higher among women (8.3 per cent) than among men (6.1 per cent). This survey also indicates that Ugandans living in urban areas are more likely to be HIV positive than those living in rural areas (8.7 per cent versus 7.0 per cent). Overall, 3.7 per cent of young women and men aged 15 – 24 years are HIV positive.

HIV prevalence among young women is markedly higher than among young men except for youth aged 15 – 17 years where there is nearly no difference in HIV prevalence between women and men. It’s estimated that there are more than 70,000 new infections every year in Uganda with children accounting for 16,000 of the total. Most of these lack access to ARVs, about 40 per cent of HIV infected children die in the first year, while 50 per cent die by the age of two. These are the most vulnerable and marginalised in the communities.

According to the Uganda Demographics Profile 2012 (Omundi index, July 2012), Uganda has a population growth rate of 3.582 per cent, birth rate of 47.36 births per 1000 population with 49.9 per cent children aged 0 – 14 years, 48.1 per cent of people aged 15 – 64 years and 2.1 per cent people aged 65 years plus.
In fact, Uganda has the largest population of orphans per capita of any country in the world. It is very important to help these children, because many of them cannot afford to get an education. They grow up without any support and they may become our biggest problem in future; and as they are more likely to become street children, the future looks even darker.

Although Uganda has made significant steps in economic and social development, it still faces major challenges. Ugandan families and communities still struggle to access healthcare, education and other basic services and young children often suffer disproportionately. While the country has won praise for its fight against HIV/Aids, the epidemic has nonetheless been devastating, with figures pointing at Uganda with the highest proportion of children orphaned by HIV/Aids worldwide.

The epidemic is a rapidly a growing problem, fuelled by ignorance about HIV prevention and brutal discrimination against people with Aids. Many children with HIV are forced to leave school, and infected women are often abandoned by their husbands. Because of this stigma, many people avoid being tested and hide the symptoms for as long as possible.

In former war ravaged areas like the north, the search for peace continues amidst poverty, the lack of protection for children, scanty food and dismal humanitarian conditions. This is a wake up call for everyone to stand in the gap and raise awareness of children’s vulnerabilities and their rights in society. We need to know that if children with HIV live hygienically, eat nutritious foods, and try to avoid infections, they can typically expect to lead full and meaningful lives for about 25 years.

In order to avoid this scourge, Uganda needs to take the campaign against HIV infection and the stigmatisation a notch higher. We need to involve in a serious study and research on infection trends and behaviour to identify why this rise may be occurring and how to remedy it. I believe that complacency and the ‘normalisation’ of Aids may be leading to an increase in the risky behaviour that early prevention campaigns sought to reverse.

There is need to integrate access to paediatric HIV drug formulations into public health as well as child survival programmes. Professional psychological counsellors should help the children and their guardians learn to live with the stigma of HIV/Aids and improve their self-esteem.

Schools should specialise in providing emotional support to children by establishing numerous youth clubs and trained peer educators to provide youth with reproductive health information and services in a “youth-friendly” environment. Also provide training in livelihood strategies for orphans, youth-headed households or youth at risk of losing a parent to an Aids-related illness.

Youths infected with HIV should also receive specialised training in vocational skills and income-generating activities to help them sustain their livelihood. Everyone can offer to support and work with these juveniles as a mentor, volunteer and trainer as they establish their livelihoods.

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