HIV fight needs cultural shift

HIV fight needs cultural shift

TUCKED somewhere in the inside pages of local newspapers was a story about Lesotho’s HIV prevalence rate increasing from 23 to 25 percent.

In another time such a story would have been given more prominence. Panic would have set in and vociferous calls would have been made for the government to step-up its fight against the disease.

But times have changed and so have attitudes towards the disease. In a way there is an indifference to the disease. Radio stations mentioned the increase in passing while other newspapers ignored it altogether.

HIV statistics no longer startle the people and those in power. That is thanks to life-prolonging medication that has removed the stigma of HIV being an instant “death sentence”.

Health Minister Dr Molotsi Monyamane, for instance, was calm about the figures, preferring to look at them as a sign that fewer people are dying of HIV related diseases. His logic is simple: antiretroviral medication has allowed infected people to live longer so the prevalence looks high.

But that doesn’t mean Lesotho is winning the battle against the disease. If anything, it shows that this is a long-drawn battle. It is therefore imperative for Lesotho to take stock of its strategies in the fight against HIV.

Let’s start with the prevention. Statistics show that more than 60 percent of youths in Southern Africa are ignorant about HIV. That alone should shock the government into action because it is that generation that is most affected. Prevention at that level helps us cut the prevalence rate and cut new infections.

This is particularly urgent in Lesotho where there are 100 new infections every day, the bulk of which are among teenagers. That young people are ignorant is a sign that our campaigns have not been well-targeted.

There is the issue of condoms which government has tried to distribute widely for free. Research has however shown that it is not enough to load people with condoms they don’t know how to use properly. Those who are on treatment must be encouraged to use condoms.

A worrying trend which government has failed to reverse is that of people being reluctant to get tested despite several campaigns. Linked to this is that even those who have been tested don’t stay longer on their medication.

Only about 45 percent of those infected are on medication, the rest have either dropped out or have not started.

It’s the same trend among pregnant women who have tested positive. It’s either they don’t know their status and those that know are not on medication.

Blame that on ignorance and lack of health centres. All this does not illustrate that we have failed to tame the scourge. Rather it just means we have to do things differently. The starting point though is to admit that we are not doing so well and realising that this fight does not belong to the government alone. Then we have to use our money wisely.

The issue of HIV/AIDS goes beyond issues of knowledge and effective communication campaigns. It is also an issue of poverty.

Unless we deal with structural issues that lie at the heart of society such as poverty alleviation we would struggle to tame the rising infections among our youths.

We need a cultural shift on how we view sex and how we talk to our children about sex. Sex is not sinful as long as it is practised in the proper context.

 

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