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 Wednesday 03 October 2007
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SIERRA LEONE: HIV/AIDS is here to stay and needs to be a priority

Photo: IRIN
A woman in Sierra Leone spreads the word
FREETOWN, 10 October 2006 (PlusNews) - Denial and ignorance of HIV/AIDS are still major problems in post-war Sierra Leone, hindering care and support for people living with the virus.

"When I tested positive in 2002 and told my family, they'd never heard of HIV/AIDS; they didn't know it existed and they didn't want me in the house, so I had to leave," HIV-positive Ibrahim Kargbo, 41, told IRIN/PlusNews in the capital, Freetown.

A lack of recognition or acceptance of the virus prevents people from being tested and seeking help. "Care and support for people living with the virus is on a very low scale here in Sierra Leone," said Evette Magbity of the HIV/AIDS Care and Support Association (HACSA) in Freetown.

"People won't come out because of the stigma or fear of being abandoned, so it's very difficult to track them. You can't give support to someone you can't see", she explained.

Ibrahim's terror after testing positive gave way to a feeling of isolation. "I knew nothing about AIDS, or about naked sex or about condoms - I didn't even know how to use them. Yes, I had sex with many girls, but I don't know how I got the virus, or if it was through sex."

HACSA's small, two-roomed office in a ramshackle house in the centre of Freetown also provides a meeting place for people living with HIV/AIDS and their families. The association has struggled to obtain government funding to expand their services and depends heavily on the United Nations World Food Programme to provide nutritional support.

The growing number of HIV positive people means Magbity is fighting a never-ending battle. "Their [government] main concern has been TB [tuberculosis], but HIV/AIDS is here to stay and needs to be a priority," she said. "The government needs to do more, like provide housing; many of our clients sleep on the streets or in the market place."

Abandoned by his family, Ibrahim sought shelter at his 'eebai', or secret society. Joining a society traditionally marks the initiation of a male into manhood and, although shrouded in secrecy, they are said to offer guidance throughout life.

Critics of male and female secret societies say the initiation practices, including circumcision and tribal markings, do not consider hygiene and could be responsible for unwittingly spreading HIV.

"People don't understand the risks of using the same knife to cut or mark yourself, and then to pass this on to the next person. But because I'm a member of these societies people are prepared to listen to me - I'm trying to sensitise other people in my societies about HIV/AIDS."

A 2005 sero-prevalence survey put the national infection rate at 1.5 percent, but in some rural areas it is as high as 3 percent. Despite these figures there is still no adequate care and support network for people living with the virus.

HACSA has opened offices in the provincial centres of Bo (in the south) and Kenema (in the southeast), and plans to establish a presence in Port Loko (in the west), Makeni (in the central region) and Kabala (in the north). But HIV/AIDS aid workers say that until people living with the virus know they can access these services they will continue to suffer in silence.

"Up here in Kono district [in the East] there is nothing for people living with HIV/AIDS," said Sylvester Samba, who does voluntary counselling and testing in the crumbling Koidu Government Hospital. "We are understaffed and under-resourced. We need organisations to provide care and support, so that the virus is out in the open and people can see that despite being HIV positive you can still lead a normal, healthy life."


Theme(s): (IRIN) Arts/Culture - PlusNews


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This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.