Keeping HIV at bay

Keeping HIV at bay

Staff Reporter

MASERU

When one of the HIV patients under her care failed to report for a routine check-up at the government-run Mokhotlong Hospital, ’Macorina Phakisi, a volunteer with a local HIV/AIDS support group, was worried.

She jumped into a taxi and travelled about 10 kilometres from Mokhotlong town to the patient’s home in ’Malefiloane village in Thaba-Khubelu.

Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw.

There on the bed, lying almost lifeless, was the patient. She was emaciated and weak, having lost so much weight in just a couple of weeks.

But she was still able to speak.

From the ensuing conversation, Phakisi, who is the contact person for Thuso e Teng Mokhotlong Support Group, picked that the patient had not eaten for days.

This was not because the illness had tampered with her appetite. She just did not have any food in the house.

“It is an experience I will never forget,” she says. “What I saw on that day will remain with me forever.”

“How could someone who is so sick be expected to travel to Mokhotlong by herself when she was so weak? I felt personally hurt,” she says.

On a regular basis Phakisi often comes face-to-face with individuals who are seriously ill while conducting her duties under the Thuso e Teng Mokhotlong Support Group.

Members of the group visit the sick and help those who cannot take their pills. They also wash linen and mattresses for the seriously ill

“Many of these people are so poor that they cannot afford taxi fare from their homes to the hospital in town. Others have to walk some 10 kilometres on foot to the hospital and some cannot do so because they are sick,” she says.

Mokhotlong is a mountainous region whose terrain makes it difficult for villagers to navigate. Some villages are only accessible on foot or on horseback.

It is in this area that Phakisi and her support group operates. They work within a 10km radius of the town.

Villagers rely on subsistence agriculture and donations from international relief agencies for sustenance.

The recent El Nino induced drought has made the situation worse for villagers who depend on subsistence farming for a living.

Phakisi’s experience in Mokhotlong is a microcosm of what is happening around Lesotho.

’Malebohang Ramaqele is the contact person for the Malimong Ha-Moorosana Support Group, a village some 40 kilometres south-east of Teya-teyaneng town which is nestled at the foothills of the Berea Maloti mountains.

This support group operates in a very rural area where many villages are not easily reached by car. A horse is the most comfortable mode of transport here.

Ramaqele coordinates the work of fellow volunteers in scattered villages “to save lives of our people with whatever thing we have”.

“Some of them are dying not because they have killer diseases but because they are hungry,” Ramaqele says.

“When I say people are dying of hunger I say it in the real sense of the word. People don’t have food and even if we help them to stick to their ARV treatment, they still die because they have nothing to eat.”

Both Phakisi and Ramaqele’s support groups are affiliates of the Lesotho Network of People Living With HIV/AIDS (LENEPWHA), which supports HIV infected individuals.

Phakisi and Ramaqele say LENEPWHA trained them to take care of the sick but they lack basic tools such as first aid kits.

Through the networking of LENEPWHA, the support groups have received training from nutritionists and horticulture experts in the Ministry of Agriculture to grow food in their gardens.

However, without rain many failed to secure food since last summer.

They also say the National AIDS Commission (NAC) used to provide them with kits to attend to the seriously sick but when the government closed it down in 2011 many caregivers found themselves with nowhere to run to.

The NAC is a statutory body established by parliament in 2005 to provide support for other bodies in the fight against HIV/AIDS and has always been under the office of the First Lady.

The NAC had been responsible for developing and coordinating programmes to combat HIV/AIDS, but was closed down in 2011 following a damning report that it had become a burden to taxpayers.

Before the NAC was disbanded, the country’s HIV/AIDS-prevalence rate was third in the world behind Swaziland and Botswana respectively, although it was already at 23 percent.

However, Lesotho has since leapfrogged Botswana into second position, while Swaziland leads the pack at 26 percent and Botswana is now at 19 percent.

In November last year the government announced it was re-establishing the NAC to coordinate programmes aimed at eradicating the epidemic.

Support groups are also getting funds from the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Small Grants Programmethat provides funding opportunities for local, community-based organisations engaged in responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Since 2008, the PEPFAR Small Grants Programme has awarded at least $650000 (approximately M9.1 million) to approximately 80 Basotho groups for support to people living with HIV/AIDS and Orphaned and Vulnerable Children (OVC).

Grants are made available to groups located in all 10 districts, but since 2015 focus is on the five priority districts that PEPFAR has chosen, which are Maseru, Leribe, Berea, Mafeteng and Mohale’sHoek.

Target populations include HIV positive adults who need care and support, as well as Orphaned and Vulnerable Children (OVC).

Activities tend to include small income-generation projects which provide financial, food and health care resources.

Past projects have included piggeries, poultry operations, candle-making, bee-keeping, bakeries, sewing projects and aloe products.

Phakisi and Ramaqele say they are expecting the newly re-established NAC to continue coordinating the work of HIV prevention and treatment by the support groups.

“The need is urgent. We need to act now if we are to keep the pandemic on hold until we find a cure,” Ramaqele says.

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