Sarah has been having fever for some months, regular antibiotics and antimalarials seem not to produce any remarkable improvement. Occasional diarrhea makes her weak and feeble. She daily longs to be with her husband, Abubakar, a military man who was recently posted to Mubi (Adamawa, Nigeria) because of the activities of BokoHaram (BH). Sarah, mother of two, will not visit the hospital, let alone have a test done. Her reason she says was personal! Days glided into weeks, weeks to months but her symptoms would not abate. A local Nurse who is also a friend broke her obstinacy and brought her to the hospital. History taking revealed husband’s occupation as military officer with over 10years of service; one who visits his family once in six months and had a history of multiple sexual partners.
Thereafter, the doctor counseled her and requested for a HIV test. Immediately, the atmosphere became quiet and Sarah’s fear became palpable. She looked towards the Nurse and like a sheep to the slaughter, she was dumb! She tried to pull herself together but tears failed her. She knew she is HIV positive but the social implication of her status threatens her to the marrow. With tears she retorted, “Doctor, I cannot stand the shame and the rejection that my children and I will go through, my husband will obviously take another wife and my children will probably be forced out of school.” She cried and cried…
Another world HIV/AIDS day is here and I think we need to spare some thoughts for innocent women like Sarah as they battle stigmatization, discrimination, neglect and ostracism alongside a positive HIV status. I need not tell you how HIV is transmitted because you know! I need not bother you on how the virus ruins the immune system because you are aware! I need not emphasize that AIDS has no cure because you are well informed! But I must bother you on behavior change towards victims of HIV/AIDS because it is a threat to pleasant relationships, economic privileges and social order!
Stigmatization is an act of putting negative distinguishing mark on people because of their experience. Just when you start referring to someone whose name you know as “HIV patient”, there and then you have started stigmatizing. It may be subtle at first but the societal implication is deep seated. It is a name no one wants to bear for obvious reasons. So when next you come in contact with people with HIV; give them a handshake, hug and reassure them, it will go a long way. The virus is not spread through casual contact!
Discrimination on the other hand is a social disadvantage placed on people with HIV. This is moving a step further; it puts a restriction on patients’ social participation and interaction. However, we need to be aware that, this action is capable of preventing voluntary disclosure of status. Loss of Job, employment difficulties, limitation of participation, restriction of travel, are possible channels of discrimination. That young qualified graduate that was refused an employment because of his HIV status is being discriminated against. That middle age woman whose visa will not be processed because she is living with the virus is being discriminated against.
Neglect by family and community members also constitute a social evil imposed on People Living with HIV and AIDS (PLHA). We’ve heard stories of husbands neglecting their spouse because of HIV and vice versa. Stories of extended family members denying bereaved mothers and children a living and livelihood because the breadwinner died of AIDS are common around us. Unavailability of antiretroviral drugs, lack of care and social support for AIDS orphan, PLHA, People Affected By AIDS (PABA) cannot be overemphasized.
The last strike and definitely the most severe is ostracism. Countless number of people have been sent out of their communities and abandoned in various leprosariums all over the country. This punitive measure meted against leprosy patients is gradually creeping into the way HIV/AIDS patients are being handled. Contrary to widespread myth however, HIV/AIDS is not ‘special’ because:
- It is a chronic, incurable disease like cancer, hypertension and diabetes
- It is blood borne like Hepatitis B and C virus
- Sexually transmitted like Gonorrhea, Syphilis and Herpes
- Preventable like every other diseases of public health importance
Therefore, the paranoia and disgust associated with HIV/AIDS is baseless and unfounded. Truth be told, we will be doing ourselves a great deal of favor if we change our behavior towards HIV/AIDS victims. If we stigmatize them, they won’t own up to their status, this will lead to concealment of cases and ultimately to clandestine spread of the virus. If we discriminate against them, they will be furious and this can lead to vengeful spread of the virus. Whichever way, more people will become infected, the burden of the disease multiplies and more deaths ensue.
The UN secretary general Ban KI Moon says “stigma is a chief reason why AIDS epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world”.
Lets us not forget the increasing spate of insurgency around the world and its effects on HIV/AIDS ; Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), BokoHaram etc, all tend to increase the number of internally displaced persons and refugees with disruption of family lives and homes, consequent upon this can be spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS.
The abduction of over 200 school girls in Nigeria over 7months ago with theories of them being married off to unknown men or the possibility of them being used as sex slaves is not only heart breaking but pathetic especially if HIV transmission is found in the mix.
Time will fail me to talk about rape and forced marriages, whose victims are now suffering from HIV/AIDS. The sad episode may get worse, the frustration may escalates and the hopelessness may become irretrievable if we continue to stigmatize, discriminate, neglect or worse still ostracize these innocent souls. Our behavior must change and the time to start is now! Stop the Stigma, Don’t Discriminate, No to Neglect, Oppose Ostracism and End this social Evil.
By Charles T. Olomofe (M.B.Ch.B)
Health and Behavioral Change Advocate