Ebun had her whole life ahead of her; her wedding was in three days and she just got a promotion. Or so she thought as she made her way to her doctor’s office for a routine check-up. She was a stickler for routines, not a huge fan of change.
Three hours later, Ebun’s live was about to change as her doctor sat across the table from her, dressed in a white overall, “Ebun, I will like you to get tested,” her doctor said.
This was in 1987, few days after millions in the United Kingdom watched as a volcano exploded on their TV screens followed by a large metallic gravestone baring the single word “AIDS”. It was a truly terrifying advert.
Ebun was diagnosed HIV-positive after her first sexual relationship, “It’s easier now for me not to try to hide it, to make people understand the importance of early testing.” Her journey since 1987 has been filled with ups and downs but Ebun remains a fighter, “It was truly frightening at that time to find out that I was positive but I survived, now surviving has gotten easier. I am 44 years old and have no intention of dying anytime soon.”
Despite the smug look scientists of the 21st century give HIV, there has remained a steady increase in the number of people diagnosed with HIV all over the world. In a 2009 AVERT report, it showed that there were 3 million people living with HIV and a prevalence of 4.6 per cent. Some areas, such as Benue, have a prevalence rate as high as 10 per cent while 280,000 Nigerians die annually of the disease and 370,000 new infections are reported each year.
It is not uncommon to find people use the terms HIV and AIDS interchangeably but Funsho Ajike, a doctor, explains the terms in the simplest terms possible for one with so many awards hanging on his walls. “HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system- the very thing that would normally get rid of viruses. It cannot grow or reproduce on its own, so it needs to infect the cells of a living organism.” Patiently, he continues: “AIDS is the stage when the immune system can no longer fight off other infections that it would usually be able to prevent.”
People do not actually die from AIDS; they die from cancers, pneumonia or other conditions that may take hold when their immune system has been weakened.
HIV can be gotten from unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person, contact with an infected person’s blood, use of infected blood products, injecting drugs, from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery and breast feeding.
A combination of several anti-retroviral drugs called highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART) has been very effective in reducing the number of sly HIV particles in the blood stream.
HAART or not, some still see HIV as a killer especially in a country where the average person live below $2 daily. “When I was told that I was HIV positive I remembered feeling instantly dirty and I could almost feel the virus in me. In my mind, I thought I was going to die.” As he speaks, Gambo fidgets. He is still coming to terms with his condition. “My friends, well the few left, still find it difficult to treat me the same.”
“Although there are now drugs which allow people to live with HIV but there is no cure as such the only certain policy for people is prevention. I am not saying we don’t have these campaigns but the urgency has gone out of it.”
The coverage of HIV/AIDS has had its shaky beginnings. Vanguard’s first story on the claim of a possible vaccine in a March 20 issue 2000 titled, ‘AIDS gets patent on vaccine’. For many readers, this was the story that shored up a doctor’s claim to what should be the world’s greatest medical breakthrough. Unfortunately, the story was deficient right from its very first sentence.
“The Nigerian Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), has confirmed the efficacy of a curative vaccine for the dreaded HIV, the virus that causes AIDS developed by a Nigerian surgeon, Dr Jeremiah Abalaka”, the story read. And it was easy to spot the factual deficiency: Anybody who knows the meaning of a vaccine knows that it can NEVER be curative. A casual check in the dictionary whether the conventional or specialised medical type, would show that a vaccine can only be preventive not curative.
Years later, those mistakes are fewer but there is still an inadequate coverage of the deadly disease in the country. People are still unaware of the efforts that numerous organizations and even the government are doing to provide the drugs cheaply and even freely to people. Or how one can seek for help if with the disease?
Lord Norman Fowler in an interview with Sky news pointed out that there was a need to have more campaigns on AIDS prevention. In an almost wistful tone, he said “Although there are now drugs which allow people to live with HIV but there is no cure as such the only certain policy for people is prevention. I am not saying we don’t have these campaigns but the urgency has gone out of it.” He could not have been more right.
Decades later, there are still myths about the way HIV is transmitted. Some say it is a gay disease or only affects promiscuous people despite the growing number of people outside that category living with the disease, also false is the fact that HIV can be contacted through certain body fluids like saliva, urine, feces and sweat.
When AIDS first started, no one could have predicted how the epidemic would spread across the world and how many millions of lives it would change. There was no real idea what caused it and consequently no real idea how to protect against it.
Now we know from bitter experience that HIV is the cause of AIDS and that it can devastate families, communities and whole countries. We have seen the epidemic knock decades off countries’ national development, widen the gulf between rich and poor nations and push already stigmatized groups closer to the margins of society. We are living in an ‘international’ society, and HIV has become the first truly ‘international’ epidemic, easily crossing oceans and borders.
However, experience has also shown that if a country acts early enough, a national HIV crisis can be averted.
By Bunmi Obanawu