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NAMIBIA: Overcoming stigma and discrimination

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

WINDHOEK, 11 March (PLUSNEWS) - Simon Elago fights discrimination against HIV-positive people publicly and fights poverty in a quieter, but equally determined way.

Tucked away behind the Bernard Nordkamp Centre in Namibia’s biggest black township of Katutura, Elago and several fellow HIV-positive men make paper coffins to reduce the financial burden for bereaved families.

It was not always his intention to become a coffin-maker. But AIDS has killed so many of his compatriots that he and several other HIV-positive men decided to start an income-generating project under the Catholic AIDS Action.

The 32-year-old is well aware that he will die one day. He watched his sister dying and almost every fortnight some of his new friends in the support group pass away.

However, by the time his life ends, many will have heard his message on AIDS - which officially killed roughly 12,000 in Namibia by the end of last year and left 100,000 infected with HIV. AIDS experts say the figure is conservative and could be double this.

"Many people do not want to believe that I am HIV-positive. Many say I have been paid to say so. What I tell them is that we should stop denying our status. It helps to 'come out' and I am determined to make the difference," he said.

He found out about his status the hard way.

"I was in prison in 1996 when I started getting sick. They took me to the hospital, took my blood and told me to return later.

"Without any counselling, they just told me that I am HIV-positive and that I will eventually die of AIDS. My immediate feeling was that it was the end of the world for me," Elago told PlusNews. Simon was helped by inmates who invited him to Bible study sessions.

When he tested positive, Namibia’s health care system was not ready to face the disease. Also, at that stage, not many people were seen to die of the disease.

Today, the city of Windhoek finds it tough to cope with the demand for land to bury the dead as the disease makes its ugly toll known. Funerals have increased from roughly 10 a week to up to 25 in the capital of Namibia. Hardest hit, though, is the former Owamboland and the Caprivi and Kavango regions, where people die on a daily basis.

Recently the government announced the introduction of a two-year pilot programme under which 500 HIV-positive mothers and their children from Windhoek and Oshakati in the north would receive nevirapine – a drug that prevents HIV-positive mothers from transmitting the virus to their babies – through assistance from German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim.

A dose of nevirapine, also called viramune - a tablet given to mothers during labour and a teaspoon of syrup to the baby within the first 72 hours of birth - has been shown to reduce infection rates among infants.

Health personnel have been trained in monitoring the progress of each patient through the pilot project.

Apart from providing nevirapine, the pilot projects would establish baseline data for measuring the effectiveness of intervention for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, the government said when the project was launched.

The health ministry said it would require R694,940 (US $59,600) from the state and that donors would hopefully fork out the rest - more than 10 times this amount.

Health Minister Dr Libertina Amathila said the programme would gradually be rolled over to other sites in the country.

Health sources said the initial programme would run for two years, after which the Namibian government could terminate it or get other partners from which to buy the drugs.

Another programme was also introduced when drug company Pfizer started providing an unlimited free supply diflucan, a drug to combat fungal infections associated with AIDS in Namibian hospitals.

Diflucan is used to treat a condition known as oesophageal candidiasis, a fungal infection of the oesophagus found in 20 to 40 percent of AIDS patients, and cryptococcal meningitis, an infection of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord that affects one in every 10 AIDS patients and kills more than 20 percent of those infected.

The HIV-positive community such as Elago and Emma Tuahepa-Kamapoha think that providing the medicine alone will not curb the negative impact HIV/AIDS has on society.

Elago said the counselling system needed to be beefed up and people needed to be economically empowered.

His project sells paper-made coffins to those affected by HIV/AIDS and to anyone else who needs them. They cost only R200 (US $17).

"We need to break away from the expensive feasts that we hold each time someone dies. What does it help when you bury someone in a R5 000 (US $428.80) coffin but there is nothing left for the orphans? We must spend more time fighting the problem that kills the people. We must face the truth or else darkness will prevail," he said.

The Bernard Nordkamp Centre where they are hosted also has a soup
kitchen for over 700 registered clients, a beaded red ribbon project from which 35 families receive monthly income, home-based care and training for counsellors and volunteers, a youth education programme and after-school activities for around 400 registered orphans.

Emma Tuahepa-Kamapoha, the first Namibian to say she was HIV-positive through heterosexual sex, told PlusNews that public figures who are HIV-positive need to "come out" to help fight the discrimination faced by HIV-positive Namibians.

She said HIV-positive cabinet ministers, top politicians, senior civil servants and leading business people had created a "poor face" for HIV by refusing to declare their status publicly.

United Nations special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, said during his recent visit to Namibia that the government had a mountain to climb in reducing the high death rate and stigma attached to the disease.

In Namibia to acquaint himself with the country's battle against
HIV/AIDS, he said HIV was reaching a more advanced stage - where more people would die each year and it would have a major impact on society socially and economically.

The envoy agreed that having more public figures make public their status would boost the awareness and prevention campaign.

Statistics indicate that one in four Namibians between the ages or 15 to 49 may die in the next seven years because of HIV/AIDS.


Recent NAMIBIA Reports
Underage sex-workers have few other options to survive,  24/Oct/05
Growing controversy over teen pregnancy,  20/Oct/05
HIV/AIDS takes sustenance as well as lives,  7/Oct/05
Action plan for local authorities ,  4/Oct/05
Hope for AIDS orphans,  28/Sep/05
Le portail d'informations générales de la Côte d’Ivoire
The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
Mothers and HIV/AIDS

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