CHAD: Speaking out for the voiceless
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
NDJAMENA, 7 March (PLUSNEWS) - It took Denis Baba Tatola a year to tell his wife and neighbours that he was HIV-positive. Today he is a committed campaigner against the pandemic, working to convince people living with HIV/AIDS in Chad to join the fight.
Tatola did not always work as he does now as a counsellor at an HIV testing centre in N'djamena.
"The headmaster in the high school where I was teaching asked me to give back the syllabus manuals the day I told him I was HIV-positive," the former maths teacher said.
"I lost the job I loved so much. Then, the national programme to fight AIDS (PNLS) offered me a job at the Al Nadjma centre," he added.
Tatola discovered his status in 1997. "In those days I was happy go lucky, and I had numerous love affairs. I heard one could get tested at the hospital and I went there to take the test," recalls Totala, who is now aged 45.
"When the doctor told me the results of my test, I cried. At the time, AIDS meant death."
"I took a year before telling my wife," Tatola says. "By dint of speaking about it, she accepted the situation and I convinced her to take a test too. Her first three tests were negative."
"Out of ignorance", as he puts it, Tatola and his wife concluded that she could not get infected and continued to have unprotected sex.
In February 2004, her fourth test indicated she was positive. Today, the couple has a three-month baby, who has yet to be tested. "My wife brings me much comfort," Tatola said "but my family has abandoned me. Some accuse me of squandering money destined to fight AIDS."
WORDS THAT HURT
Despite awareness campaigns organised by PNLS, stigma remains widespread in the country, with an estimated 4.8 percent of adults who are living with the virus
"Last year, I went on a sensitization mission in Abeche, Chad's second largest city," Tatola said. "The mayor who welcomed our delegation said that if we wanted to stop AIDS, the solution was simply to gather together all people known to be HIV infected, to pour petrol over them and set fire to exterminate them."
In Chad, people living with HIV/AIDS are still reluctant to publicly delare their status or get involved in anti-AIDS efforts. Tatola, who is the coordinator of a network of associations of people living with HIV/AIDS, attributed this to a lack of medical and psychosocial care.
"People who are HIV-positive have yet to play an eminent role in the anti-AIDS campaign in Chad," Tatola admitted.
"In January, I attended a conference of people living with HIV/AIDS in Yaounde [Cameroon]. When I started speaking, people gave me an ovation: 'This is the first time we've seen a Chadian who is HIV-positive at a conference. You're very behind in Chad', a Cameroonian participant told me."
Chad was at "ground zero in terms of care", he noted. "Doctors show us disdain and speak words that hurt us too much. Sometimes they say that antiretroviral (ARV) drugs make us go 'mad', simply because we ask for treatment.
According to Tatola, only three of the 18 associations of people living with HIV/AIDS across the country, are receiving ARVs for their members.
The national programme to fight AIDS, has revealed that 1,414 people have access to ARV treatment in Chad, but that number could double by 2006 following a pledge by the health ministry to take care of 3,000 patients across the country.
President Idriss Deby's announcement last December that the cost of the medication would be reduced was laudable, but was not enough, Tatola said.
ARV treatment currently costs 5,000 CFA francs per month, a whopping US $10 in a country where the average income is $21 per month per inhabitant.
"I run sensitization campaigns for PNLS but it isn't enough because I'm alone and my work has no real impact," Tatola said. "The authorities, as well as groups fighting HIV/AIDS sponsored by international agencies, don't hear our voices."