All of us have family and friends who are HIV positive or who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. The good news is that Namibia is successfully battling the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
However, lately, I have become worried that people are being lulled into the false belief that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is ‘over’. I am waving a red flag of words, shouting: “Do not ignore the wolf because you’ve built a stronger door; it is still lying in wait.”
Recently, I overheard a comment that chilled me to the bone. One young person said that there was a ‘cure’ for HIV/AIDS. The person he was talking with said that unprotected sex wasn’t a problem “like it was before.”
The statistics confirm that there is a lower rate of new infections and reductions in mother-to-child transmissions. More people keeping their infections under control due to the availability of proper medications. The outlook is positive as Namibia gets a handle on the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The Ministry of Health and Social Services (MoHSS) has released the National Guidelines on Adolescents Living with HIV. The report notes that more than 11,000 adolescents have tested positive for HIV at public health institutions. Of course, I have no idea if that number is up or down from the previous sampling. But, the fact that there are 11,000 adolescents who are HIV positive, with 9,000 receiving treatment and 2,000 who are not, is alarming! Where are the fervour, donor funding, and experts to consistently remind the public about the permanent lifestyle changes needed to battle HIV/AIDS?
I am unscientific, but I wonder if the infected adolescents missed the tidal wave of HIV/AIDS information of the late 1990s through about 2010? There used to be billboards, radio shows, messages in schools and churches, and television programs about the pandemic. There were condoms in the bathrooms of government buildings and other innovative outreach mechanisms to keep the safe sex and 'get tested' message alive. These constant reminders about the need to recognize HIV/AIDS and how it is transmitted seem to have fallen away. Have we become numb to the threat of HIV/AIDS?
Did the message that AIDS is not a death sentence, somehow morph into a message that people cannot become infected anymore?
Namibia must stand up and cheer for our achievements! My question is: In our cheering, are we teaching people about the need to stay alert about risky behaviour that can lead to transmission of the virus, learning to live safely with those who are infected, keeping up to date on the latest treatments and other related issues?
For almost 15 years, the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), civil society organizations other development partners and church groups have worked with the government to fund great programs in Namibia. In 2018, 77 percent of all HIV-positive adults have achieved viral load suppression, a widely used measure of effective HIV treatment in a population, surpassing the world target of 73 percent by 2020. Namibia has met and exceeded the UNAIDS 90:90:90 fast track targets. This is good news.
The statistics say that there are reductions in mother-to-child transmissions. Namibia has reduced its adult HIV incidence rate by 50 percent in the past five years. Although, young women ages 15-24 still have a far higher HIV incidence rate than same-aged young men.
We need to tell the world our encouraging HIV/AIDS story. We need to encourage donor countries to increase their assistance to the Ministry of Health as we successfully combat this disease. Showing the public that the pandemic is not a death sentence is critical. And yet, there is a dilemma. As we list our advances in the HIV/AIDS battle, are we unconsciously giving a ‘green light’ to the public when it comes to discouraging promiscuity, lackadaisical condom use and unsafe sex? Are we still encouraging people to be tested? Are those who know they are HIV positive are telling their potential sex partners the truth? Or, is the good news making people numb about the need to continually battle this pandemic?
I think that Namibia’s HIV/AIDs success story is being selectively heard. Do people think that if a man gets ‘the cut’ (adult male circumcision), he cannot ever contract HIV? Are our young girls completely unaware of how the pandemic spreads and are they too repressed to demand that their partners use condoms? Perhaps their parents are still too culturally embarrassed to bring up this subject?
No one wants national panic about HIV/AIDS. There were people committing suicide after testing positive. Nasty gossip laced with innuendo about a person ‘having AIDS’, is still an ugly way to discredit someone. Are we still acting locally and in our homes, churches, workplaces and communities to throw away the wrong assumptions about HIV/AIDS that seem to still exist?
I don’t have the answers. I am not a healthcare provider nor am I an HIV/AIDS activist. My point is this: even if you strengthen your door (with successful programs), it doesn’t mean that the wolf which was growling outside some years ago, is no longer a threat.