HUMAN immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection goes hand in hand with the challenges of stigma, however, this is less of a problem when a person living with HIV/Aids accepts their positive status goes on medication and decides to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
Even with challenges of stigma, people living with HIV/Aids can live longer than those who do not have the virus, and this is being witnessed more and more in many places in the country.
Recently in Bukoba, as in several other regions most affected by HIV/Aids, groups of people living with HIV/Aids met and discussed several issues, including stigma and discrimination and their rights as provided for in the Aids Policy of 2001.
Right to treatment
The Aids Policy states that people living with HIV/Aids seeking treatment and care, information and counselling, have the same rights as any person seeking any other health or social services, including legal protection against all forms of discrimination and human rights abuses in general.
During group discussions in Bukoba participants discussed different challenges, including their rights and their responsibilities to prevent others from contracting HIV/Aids. This they can do by following guidance received during counselling for their life situation.
Cry for loans
The government and other stakeholders provide opportunities to access loans to different groups, but for those living with HIV/Aids it has been difficult to get loans due to restrictions that can only be removed by PLHIV themselves.
Mr Said Nshaija, a leader among persons living with HIV/Aids who has been living with it for many years and who has already lost his spouse, spoke of his failed efforts to form a support group for persons living with the disease and get loans.
He said after learning about the possibility of accessing loans from the District Council by different groups of people, he decided to find other vulnerable persons like himself to form and register an economic support group that could apply for the loans. However, this effort was not successful.
Many people he reached out refused to form a group that would identify them as people living with HIV/Aids. As a result, they lost an opportunity to access the loans. A loan officer for special groups from Bukoba Municipal, Mr Murshid Issa, who was also attending the meeting, confirmed that no applications for loan had been received from a group of people living with HIV/Aids.
Mr Issa said in addition to missing an opportunity to access loans, people living with HIV/Aids are also missing an opportunity for treatment by not joining the Community Health Insurance Fund (CHIF). The CHIF provides for coverage of opportunistic infections not included in ART.
By not forming support groups, people living with HIV/Aids miss the opportunity of accessing 10 per cent of funds that are set aside by the District Council aimed at lending to different vulnerable groups of that area.
Paediatric ART Children, in whatever way they have been infected with HIV/Aids, also have the right to treatment, information and counselling and to have the same rights as other children. However, some families have failed to be open with their children about the infection that they have.
They have had their children put on treatment without telling them, and this raises questions later when a child grows up. Participants in the workshop raised and discussed the issue of when was the right time to tell a child about his/her infection.
They asked about how to manage a conversation with a child who also wants to know how she or he got infected. For Ms Safina Migeyo who has two children living with HIV/Aids, this was not difficult to manage. She said after learning that she was found with HIV/Aids, she started treatment and became open about her status to her children.
"I have three children, but two of them are living with HIV/Aids. They all know, because I told them that I keep antivirus medication on the (dining room) table. The children follow the timetable and see it as a normal thing,” said Ms Safina.
She added that it was not advisable to start giving a child antiretroviral medication without telling him/her about it. Not being open to a child in such a situation, she said, could lead a child to develop a cruel and revengeful character when he/she only learnt about his/her status as an adult.
She advised parents to be open to their children and tell them the importance of taking ARVs and adopting healthy lifestyles, which would help them live positively and have better health than those who were unaware of their status.
She cautioned that when a child asked why they were taking medications every day, parents should avoid telling them that the medication was for treating some other illness. Not only will they be shocked when they learn the truth later, they will be making bad decisions about their health because they don’t know better.
When a parent informs the child early about his/her infection, and involves teachers, it will also help teachers protect the child’s health by not assigning heavy work at school and support the child to adhere to treatment.
Bukoba without HIV/Aids
The government is continually making efforts to connect those living with HIV/Aids to other stakeholders who are supporting the national response to HIV/Aids. As new infections are not decreasing fast enough to end HIV/Aids in Tanzania, there are greater efforts taking place now for HIV/Aids prevention.
These efforts are to make places like Bukoba HIV/Aids free, and for those living with HIV/Aids there to exist in a supportive environment while being productive citizens for their families, communities and the nation. UNAIDS Officer Catherine Spring, who listened to the challenges of the group said, “An HIV/Aids-free Bukoba is possible through partnerships with stakeholders.”
She said UNAIDS was supporting the government to fight against HIV/Aids to prevent people from contracting the disease and find resources to continue the fight. She said Tanzania was among the many African countries that faced the challenges of HIV/Aids infections.
She remembered the time of the first International Aids Conference in Kenya 30 years ago, when there were high levels of fear, stigma and discrimination. She said she was surprised to find that people stigmatised those living with HIV/Aids despite the great strides that had been made in the region.
Mr Gregory Kamugisha from the National Council of People living with HIV/Aids, said the workshop constituted the first step towards reaching targeted groups such as people living with HIV/Aids and those who were at high risk of contracting it and listening to their advice on how to improve services to them.
Similar workshops have been held in Songwe and Katavi regions. He said most of the challenges mentioned by the group were complaints that reflected lack of understanding of policies and guidelines that were not well-known to people living with HIV/Aids, people at risk of contracting HIV/Aids or people affected by HIV/Aids.
He mentioned that a national dialogue that would involve different stakeholders who were responsible for establishing and administering policies for people living with HIV/Aids was needed, and that reaching affected groups in the most affected areas helped to understand the real situation.
Irish AID, in partnership with TACAIDS, UNAIDS and NACOPHA, among others, is supporting Tanzania to carry out such dialogues in areas where national studies show that levels of HIV/Aids infection continue to be high.
A dialogue at national level, among other things, is expected to bring solutions to different problems that affect those accessing healthcare by PLHIV and people at risk of contracting HIV/Aids, including things such as a regulatory framework and stigma in the workplace and inheritance especially for widows living with HIV/Aids.