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NIGERIA: Struggling to promote awareness

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


Big and bustling Nigeria has a shocking lack of awareness about HIV/AIDS

LAGOS, 29 November (PLUSNEWS) - Huge billboards with life-size photographs of Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo holding close two teenagers, a boy and girl, one on each side, have been springing up across the country in recent months.

On Obasanjo's left side is Kabati Ishaya, 19-year-old student living with HIV, and one of the few to go public with her status in a country where the stigma of having the virus is still deep-rooted. On his right is 17-year-old Abayomi Mighty, an activist in the campaign to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in a society where ignorance is the main catalyst for infection.

Bearing the slogan: "I care, do you ... Stop pretending that HIV/AIDS does not exist" the billboard represents the latest efforts in Nigeria to show the highest-level commitment against the epidemic, and highlight the dangers faced by the country's young people.

The product of a partnership involving Nigeria's Federal Ministry of Health, the National Committee Against HIV/AIDS (NACA), and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), it is a dramatic attempt to rouse young Nigerians to the devastating reality of the disease among them.

Young people, aged between 15 and 40, represent the main bulk of the 5.8 percent of the 120 million Nigerian population now infected with the virus that causes AIDS. But HIV/AIDS activists believe what is of greater concern is the high level of ignorance within this population about the dangers of the disease and what to do to avoid it.

According to Ibironke Akinsete, a professor of haematology and chairperson of NACA, about half of all new infections in the country occur in young people aged 15 to 24. And the infection burden has been found to be more on girls than boys of the same age because of the "asymmetry in sexual partnerships". Because girls are infected earlier, they also die earlier.

Nigerian universities and other tertiary educational institutions, it has been found, illustrate the worst of these trends, Akinsete told a recent seminar at the University of Lagos on the challenges posed to African higher education by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The predominant attitude in the country's universities (with among the most sexually active segment of the population) is that the virus does not exist, Akinsete said.

"The disease is devastating our university population," she said. "We must take the campaign on HIV/AIDS to them (students) in their respective campuses, in their hostels, cafeteria, peer groups, social clubs ... We should reach them anywhere they are."

That university students, who are among the most enlightened group in any society, are so ignorant of HIV/AIDS underscores the scale of the problem in Nigeria. Experts blame the situation on the lukewarm response that followed the discovery of the first AIDS case in the country in 1986.

The absence of strong political support to the anti-HIV/AIDS effort from the military governments then in power, encouraged denial of the existence of the problem. There was limited funding for efforts to combat the disease, compounded by poor planning, disjointed coordination and monitoring efforts.

Most activists believe the election of Obasanjo's government in 1999 has made a big difference in this regard. "The president has been very, very supportive," Tom Mshindi, UNICEF Nigeria's communication officer, told PlusNews. "In the last three years we have had a clear programme and some focus," he added.

The new dispensation has enabled NACA, UNAIDS, UNICEF and the Civil Society Consultative Group on HIV/AIDS to collaborate in designing intervention programmes aimed at adolescents and youths. One of them aims to optimise the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme, under which university and other tertiary school graduates undertake one year national service.

Under the programme of HIV advocacy through the NYSC, 40,000 of the over 100,000 graduates that go through the scheme annually were targeted this year for training. Apart from basic facts about reproductive health and the disease, they were also given training on care and support for people living with the virus.

Those so trained are expected to act as peer educators, training a minimum of 40 youths in and out of school during their service year, translating to about 1.6 million people to whom HIV/AIDS education would have been imparted in 2002. There are already plans to expand the scope of the programme following a very successful pilot phase.

"The key thing," according to Mshindi, "is to try and generate a programme that can achieve a significant multiplier effect."

Already the partners are looking at other effective ways of reaching young people with vital information on AIDS. One other method being explored vigorously is corporate partnerships.

A recent agreement signed with Coca-Cola will enable the anti-HIV/AIDS campaign partnership to use the soft drink company's vast marketing and distribution infrastructure, which extend to even the remotest areas of the country, to reach young people - among the greatest consumers of its products. Through this medium, not only will literature be disseminated, plans are also afoot to use the companies marketing vans to broadcast information to people in far-flung places.

Through these efforts it is hoped that the vital messages that will lead to behaviour change will reach the most vulnerable parts of the Nigerian population. As one NGO official said: "The epidemic is really still in its infancy in Nigeria and there is still a good chance we can roll back its deadly advance."


Recent NIGERIA Reports
Funding agencies demand greater accountability,  7/Dec/05
MSF research highlights treatment threat,  6/Dec/05
Global Fund grant threatened,  6/Dec/05
A lethal dose of shame,  18/Oct/05
HIV testing campaign draws poor response,  13/Oct/05
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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