Nigeria and HIV/AIDs: What more can be done?

HIV/AIDS is a disease associated with high stigma and discrimination in Nigeria. These are often rooted in socially learned attitudes in seeing the disease as affecting people who live immoral lives without actually knowing how they contracted the virus. HIV/AIDS patients are stigmatized and discriminated against; seen as humans without dignity, value or worth to society. This is not just a violation of their inherent dignity and human rights; it is also an ineffective public health measure.

People living with HIV/AIDS(PLWHAs) may become implicitly associated with stigmatized behaviour, regardless of how they actually contracted the infection. PLWHAs are often stigmatized, ostracized, rejected, and shunned, and may experience sanctions, harassment, and even violence because of their infection or association with HIV/AIDS. Little wonder why affected patients are so secretive about their status and shy away from public events on the infections.

At WYA, we believe no human can lose his dignity due to their circumstances. No illness or condition can strip off his intrinsic, inviolable dignity, not even HIV/AIDS.

HIV, an acronym for human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that leads to the deterioration of the immune system by infecting human immune system cells and destroying their function. Once the immune system is deficient, it is not able to fight against infections and diseases causing increased susceptibility to infections. A person has AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, when he or she is in the most advanced stages of HIV and is infected by any of more than twenty opportunistic infections. Opportunistic infections are infections that take advantage of the weakened immune system. When a person contracts HIV, there are often no immediate symptoms, and thus one can go for a while without knowing that he or she has HIV.  During the initial period of infection, a person with HIV is highly infectious and transmission to another person is possible. 

HIV is transmitted through preventable means such as unprotected sex with an HIV-positive person, using HIV-contaminated needles and syringes, from HIV-positive mother to her child in pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding, and blood transfusion with HIV-contaminated blood. Thus, it is clear that HIV does not affect only those with high-risk behaviors, such as sex workers, injecting drug users, and men who have sex with men.

Nigeria’s first official case of AIDS was first recorded in 1986. Nigeria now has the second-highest rate of HIV infection in the world, with about 3.6 million people infected. Nigeria contributed 9% of the people living with HIV, 10% of new HIV infections, and 14% of HIV-related deaths in the world in 2013. The mode of transmission study conducted in 2009 indicated that 80% of new HIV infections in Nigeria are attributed to heterosexual transmission, while mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) and transfusion of infected blood and blood products ranked next as the most common modes of HIV transmission. While HIV-risky sexual behaviors such as early sexual debut and unprotected sexual intercourse with multiple and concurrent sexual partners, intergenerational sex and transactional sex still constitute major risk factors for HIV infection among young people, other risk behaviors such as injection of drugs and unprotected anal sexual practices are growing among this population group particularly in the rapidly growing urban and poor communities.

To address the country’s high HIV cases, Nigeria needs to institute a sustained and effective national response to prevent new infections and ensure the health and well-being of those infected and affected by HIV. 

The National HIV/AIDS Strategic Framework and Plan provides the backbone of such national response; they serve as a crucial platform for uniting stakeholders towards achieving the national HIV control goals, and tools for mobilizing the required resources to that end. The National HIV and AIDS Strategic Framework (NSF) 2017-2021 and National HIV and AIDS Strategic Plan (NSP) 2017 – 2021 were designed and created to address the HIV/AIDS cases in Nigeria. The vision of the NSP is “An AIDS-free Nigeria, with zero new infection, zero AIDS-related discrimination and stigma” with the goal being to “Fast-track the national response towards ending AIDS in Nigeria by 2030”. 

Government policies to contain the infections include the criminalization of key behaviors such as men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs.  As these policies view the human person as the problem, they seek to reduce harm yet do not change the underlying behaviour. A more sustainable approach would be risk avoidance strategies focused on changing the underlying behaviour that puts a person in the position of harm. For the drug addict and sex worker, this could mean treating the illness of addiction and empowering sex workers to change careers. WYA’s White Paper on HIV/AIDS also shows how reducing multiple concurrent partners is an effective person-centered strategy as seen in the case study of Uganda. Mobilized by faith based organisations, prominent cultural figures and the Ugandan president, the “zero grazing” message was preached to convey the importance of faithfulness to one’s partner. Messages like “Be faithful” and “Love carefully” were disseminated through the media, posters and music performances.

While the government has made multiple approaches to tackling this problem, the onus lies on us as individuals to do our part, the greatest part actually. As individuals, we should reduce multiple concurrent sexual partners, delay sexual debut, increase access to education and help injecting drug users become sober. And for those already living with HIV/AIDS, it isn’t the end of life, seek medical care by starting the antiretroviral therapy (ART), adhering to medication and not letting the stigma keep you down or make you feel without dignity for no man can lose his dignity due to any sickness.

Published: July 26, 2021
Written by: Gideon Vision Olufeagba, a current WYA Headquarters Online Intern from Nigeria

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