By Theresa Lungu
A couple of years ago, while studying at Boston College in Massachusetts, I was asked to be a guest speaker in an undergraduate class; AIDS in Africa. I mulled over how I would portray the true picture of HIV/AIDS in Africa to this group of young people to whom for the most part, AIDS was as remote and foreign as Africa itself. I wrote down many words and notes, I researched numbers and statistics about the disease, particularly in Zambia. In the end, I didn’t have to say much. I just brought along my photo album and pointed out the numerous pictures of my friends and family who have died from AIDS. I
concluded the talk by sharing that the Zambian government played a leading role in the sensitization of HIV/AIDS and since 2003 had been providing free HIV drugs to its citizens. I thought I had the talk in control until one of the students asked me why there were still new infections of HIV in Zambia if there was extensive sensitization. I had no coherent answer.
Recently, Dr Aubrey Mwango, Coordinator of Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) at the Ministry of Health in Zambia said “We are currently having 1.1 percent new infections every year and although the number may seem small, this is cancelling all new patients on treatment.” Dr Mwango further stated that the government of Zambia is spending about US$100 million per year to procure antiretroviral drugs( ARVs), adding that this is likely to increase as the level of new infections has remained steady over the years.
So how does a country that is so sensitized on HIV/AIDS continue to have new infections? Either there are still people out there who do not have the proper information on the prevention of AIDS or they have the information but ignore precautionary measures. In lieu of the latter, perhaps we should drape black bunting from every door as a reminder of the scourge. The prevalent rate of HIV/AIDS in Zambia is 14.3 percent of the population aged between 15 and 49. Of this,roughly about 445,000 receive the free ARVs provided by the government. What about the rest? Despite advances in the treatment of HIV/AIDS there is still no cure for AIDS. The only way towards an AIDS free society is to curb those new infections.
This holiday season as you buy gifts for family and friends, give the gift of life and share with them the importance of testing for HIV. Have conversations on AIDS with loved ones. When people have cancer or malaria they call family and friends for support, but with AIDS the afflicted shy away and die shrouded in shame and fear of rejection.The loneliness of AIDS is still profound for patients and the reason for that is many of us stigmatize them.Many families in Zambia are struggling with opening up when a family member is infected. They would rather blame the illness on the old lady across the street or the ‘jealous’ co-worker.
In essence, preventing new HIV infections starts in the home, and in the community by participation from all of us. I get very saddened at how awkward some Zambians get when the conversation turns to HIV/AIDS.I have heard whispers about who is on ARVs and speculation about whom they got ‘it’ from. I always ask these doom whisperers how they would like to be perceived if they happened to be infected. Usually,the conversation ends there. I salute the late Winston Zulu who was very instrumental in erasing some of the stigma associated with AIDS in Zambia and along the way fostered acceptance among others with the disease.
To quote Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, who is a strong advocate in the fight against HIV/AIDS; “Africa, our mother Africa, must be free, and it has fallen to our lot to free this part. Be of good cheer, we are just beginning.”
Onwards to an HIV/AIDS free Zambia!