LIBERIA: With peace in place, the battle against HIV/AIDS gains momentum
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
MONROVIA, 9 March (PLUSNEWS) - Now that peace has returned to Liberia, people living with HIV/AIDS are setting their sights on a new fight - the battle to contain the pandemic.
Campaigners say the first priority is to break down the barriers of discrimination, still strong in a country struggling to shake off 14 years of civil war, a time when little could be done on the AIDS information and prevention front.
"Frankly speaking, discrimination and stigma against we, the HIV/AIDS victims in Liberian society, is high," said Saa Howard, who heads an umbrella group of more than 100 people living with AIDS called the Light Association.
"Most people, including our relatives and friends, are finding it difficult to accept us within their midst," Howard told PlusNews. "The Liberian people must accept us as they accept others with different illnesses."
In this country busy healing the wounds of war and restoring battered health facilities, officials fear a spread in the pandemic as almost a million people displaced by war start to return to their homes.
The 350,000 Liberians who sought refuge in other nations in the region "are coming back from host countries with a prevalence of between 3 and 5 percent, with the exception of Cote d'Ivoire, where the rate is almost 10 percent," said the UN refugee agency UNHCR on its website.
Mass population movements could increase the risk of spreading the HI virus in a country struggling to rehabilitate basic health care services, the agency added.
According to the head of the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP), James Duworko, a survey conducted in 2002 concluded that 8.2 percent of the country's more than three million people were infected. Revised data from UNAIDS put the rate at the end of 2003 at 5.9 percent, estimating that around 220,000 Liberians are living with the disease.
Spreading AIDS awareness
Since 2002, when Kpannah Jallah became the first Liberian to publicly reveal she was infected, no one else has come out in public. Instead people living with AIDS rally around the Light Association set up by Jallah to advocate on their behalf.
One woman member, who asked to remain anonymous, said a friend whose infection became public was thrown out of her house in the Nimba County town of Ganta, a key trading centre that lies 247 km north of the capital Monrovia near the Guinean border.
"Her family cast her out, because we made known her status. I for one tried my best to convince her family to accept her, but my pleas fell on deaf ears," she said.
"It is very hard for us, especially us women, to come out and tell people that we have the virus ... because most Liberians are ignorant about the disease. This signals to our minds that more awareness need to be done on AIDS," she said.
To this effect, the Light Association, despite the fear of stigma, launched a nationwide campaign in January against the spread of the virus. It describes the campaigning as "messages from the horse's mouth".
"Accept AIDS victims as you accept people with malaria," says one slogan. "AIDS is a reality, we are living with it," says another.
Howard said the organisation was taking the slogans "to our people in rural Liberia to convince them about the existence of the disease, because most of them are still ignorant about the disease and the mode of transmissions."
The campaign so far has targeted Nimba County, the county in the north of Liberia that borders Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, where most of the Liberian refugees sought shelter. Bong County in central Liberia and the coastal county of Grand Bassa are also being visited.
"Some people in those counties really appreciated our messages and we have been receiving numerous calls to return on a similar campaign," Howard said. "Most of them said they had not seen victims of the virus before and had been in a state of total disbelief."
Training and care
With a GDP of US $135 per person, Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
High unemployment among people living with HIV/AIDS, coupled with the social stigma, has prompted the Light Association to provide job training.
The group recently set up an intensive three-month tailoring workshop geared in particular at women living with AIDS in need of work.
"It is a capacity-building skilled training programme to enable our members especially the females to do tailoring as a means of earning a living for themselves," Howard said.
With the help of the UN Volunteers Programme in Liberia, the association had acquired sewing machines for the course, he added.
"People may be ashamed to come around to us. But when we can learn a particular skill and start putting it into practice, then we can begin to sustain ourselves instead of waiting for handouts," one female trainee said.
The transitional government meanwhile is making anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs available on a free-of-charge basis through the government-run NACP.
Duworko of the NACP said that 369 people were receiving ARVs under the scheme, which started up in 2001.
"We are thankful to the government for giving us these drugs," Howard said. "Right now most members who have reached the stage of taking the drugs are on treatment and we have not experienced any shortages yet."
But there was a shortage of drugs for secondary so-called opportunistic infections linked to the virus, he said.
"Most of the hospitals in Monrovia have ran out of these drugs and it is worrisome for those of us living with the virus," he explained.
"There are assurances from the government that they will be made available but we do not know how soon."