By Melody Okereke
Today, the African continent is the most affected by HIV/AIDs, with 25.6 million people living with HIV in 2016. Africa also accounts for almost two-thirds of the global total of new HIV infections.
The nightmare continues in a disproportionate manner: Some countries on the continent are recording success in halving the numbers of infected people and new cases of HIV/AIDS whilst some other countries are still battling with the stigmatisation that holds people back from getting tested for the disease and knowing their status. Unfortunately, one of such countries is Nigeria.
Some years back, being diagnosed as HIV-positive was like being given a death sentence. While some people made peace with their diagnosis with counseling, others saw it as the end of life, whereby suicidal feelings crept in. But times have changed, and the advancement in researches and antiretroviral drugs now gives hope to people affected and living with HIV.
However, the traditional African society places great pressure on families and individuals to maintain good social standings, which makes it difficult for people who live with HIV/AIDs to access testing and management services, not to mention navigate the social minefield of being the “black sheep” that soiled the family name through disclosure of a HIV-positive status.
Presently, the key populations most affected by HIV/AIDS in Nigeria are sex workers, gay men (men who have sex with men) and people who inject drugs.
Stigma and discrimination is a major challenge, especially towards these groups of people. It is one of the leading factors that hold people back from getting tested, and when people do not get tested, the disease is transmitted like wildfire – especially amongst men, given that societal norms encourage them to have more than one sexual partner, and African men are oftentimes careless about unprotected sexual intercourse.
There is an increasing concern about family caregivers’ reluctance to care for and treat family members with HIV/AIDS. As a result of this, most People Living with HIV/AIDS would not disclose their HIV status even to their family members to avoid distancing reactions and discriminatory practices towards them.
Studies have found that family caregivers also possess stigma and prejudice attitudes towards their own family members who have HIV/AIDS. As stigma and discrimination continue to be a hidden factor that acts as impediment for the effective prevention program, policymakers need to strengthen the HIV/AIDS intervention and health education program in local communities in Nigeria and has led to the formation of the HIV/AIDS response team.
Apparently, the HIV/AIDS response in Nigeria is overloaded with stigma and discrimination, which continues to constitute a major threat to gains in and opportunities to end the epidemic by 2030. The need to expand access to various HIV/AIDS services in Nigeria underscored the importance to develop a National Stigma Reduction Strategy (NSRS) as part of efforts to reduce and eliminate stigma and discrimination.
Educating the population with respect to improve their understanding of HIV/AIDS transmission and control are crucial to reducing this menace in Nigeria.
Education and knowledge are believed to be the vanguard for disease prevention. Behavioral change strategies should be delivered by the population in order to impede the spread of the disease. Furthermore, preventing and fighting stigma about HIV/AIDS should be a collective effort of everyone in society.
Whilst the NGOs, civil society organizations, and Faith-Based Organizations are doing great work around awareness and orientation, the bulk of the work must lie with the society at large.