UGANDA: Tough times for HIV-positive students

Photo: Charles Akena/IRIN
Students need more awareness of the needs of their HIV-positive peers
Amuru, 4 June 2009 (PlusNews) - Twice a day Charity Lapolo*, 15, a student in the northern Ugandan district of Gulu, sneaks away to take her life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs, terrified that other students will find out she is HIV positive.

When they discovered her status at her previous school, she was called "a walking corpse". "It was unbearable, and seeing you taking the drugs brought more insults; nobody would ever be your friend," she said.

Hoping the bullying would end, Lapolo stopped taking her medication and nearly died. "I always threw my drugs in a toilet at the school; I lost weight and became very thin and sick. I was admitted at Lacor Hospital [in Gulu] for several weeks - luckily, I survived."

In the mornings she hangs back in the dormitory, waiting for the others to leave for class and risking punishment for being late so she can take her drugs; she then waits till they have left for night-time sessions before taking her evening dose.

Stigma in northern Uganda is high, and young people living with HIV often have to deal with the bullying and feelings of isolation without support. The Forum of People living HIV/AIDS, a local NGO, said up to 11,000 children were living with HIV in Gulu and neighbouring Amuru District.

"Should I leave school so that I can continue taking my ARVs and live longer, or I should I stop taking the drugs so that I continue with my education?" said another girl at the same school, who told IRIN/PlusNews she secretly took her drugs in the toilet.

Most teenagers find adolescence a confusing time, but it is even harder for young people who are HIV-positive and have no one to turn to.

Dealing with sexuality

A young adult in Amuru district said her school needed HIV awareness classes so students would be more informed about the risks. "Two boys in my class fell in love with me but I told them that I am HIV-positive; they kept insisting that they will use condoms during sex, but I refused."

''Two boys in my class fell in love with me but I told them that I am HIV-positive; they kept insisting that they will use condoms during sex, but I refused''
A 2008 study by international non-governmental research organisation Population Council found that although Ugandan adolescents infected with HIV were sexually active and had the same aspirations as their HIV-negative peers, there were wide gaps in addressing their sexual and reproductive health needs.

"Most programmes assume that HIV-infected young people remain asexual," the researchers found. "Service providers and counsellors usually advise perinatally infected adolescents not to engage in sexual relationships."

Insufficient food

The meals served at school are usually small and of poor nutritional value, but HIV-positive students cannot ask for better food without being identified. "I can't sit in class after taking the drugs, I feel so weak and I have blurred vision," said John Ocen*.

The UN World Health Organization recommends that energy intakes for HIV-infected children experiencing weight loss be increased by 50 percent to 100 percent over the requirements for healthy uninfected children. Amuru district education officer Ben Okwamoi said the inadequate food in schools had been made worse by rising food prices.

Sensitisation needed

Okwamoi said primary and secondary schools should have lessons in HIV awareness. "All schools should have HIV/AIDS clubs that address some of the challenges mentioned by these children. Children who stigmatize others should be punished to deter those who might development similar behaviour."

His counterpart in Gulu District, Vincent Ochieng, said his department had noted negative behaviour by students towards their HIV-positive peers and that these measures should be enforced; HIV-positive students should have a support network so they did not feel isolated.


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

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

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