Tomorrow, December 1, Nigeria joins the global community to mark the World AIDS Day. And as it is known worldwide, the Day is set aside for all nations to key into the rare opportunity in the increasingly busy world for people to work actively and collaboratively with partners around the world to raise awareness on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as well as to drive the world closer to the goal of an HIV-free generation.
Interestingly, the theme for this year’s Day: The Time to Act Is Now, is very apt and a natural call on all to act with urgency to implement the latest high-impact, evidence-based HIV prevention strategies.
Instructively, no fewer than an estimated 36.9 million people are living with HIV/AIDS worldwide.
A 2014 report added that, of the global total, 9% of them live in Nigeria. Nigeria, together with South Africa and Uganda the report further stated, account for almost half of all annual new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa. This is despite achieving a 35% reduction in new infections between 2005 and 2013. Also, it reported that approximately 210,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in Nigeria in 2013, which is 14% of the global total. Since 2005, there has been no reduction in the number of annual deaths, indicative of the fact that only 20% of people living with HIV in Nigeria are accessing the much needed antiretroviral treatment, ART.
Unprotected heterosexual sex accounts for about 80% of new HIV infections in Nigeria, with the majority of remaining HIV infections among key affected populations, authors of the report underscored.
We are compelled to agree with the report in no small way, given other related factors that have continued to keep the war against the deadly disease on the slow lane.
On this note, we must state that the key vulnerable and affected populations and HIV in Nigeria include sex workers, men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs. Statistics show that this group makes up only 1% of the Nigerian population; but most shockingly, they account for around 23% of new HIV infections.
We note that in response to the foregoing, the Nigerian National HIV/AIDS Strategic Plan, NSP, 2010-2015 calls for enhanced behaviour change communication for key affected populations just we are agree too that to deliver this, peer education systems are being scaled-up, alongside social media messaging that aim to reach those populations who tend not to present for HIV services.
But then, the current situation whereby half of all HIV infections in Nigeria among key populations continue to be among sex workers, their partners and their clients largely undermine the efforts. This is not surprising though considering that only 18% of sex workers were thought to have received HIV prevention information in 2010.Little wonder that 19% of male sex workers and 25% of female sex workers in the country are said to be living with HIV. This is eight times higher than the general population. The 2012 National HIV/AIDS and Reproductive Health Survey found HIV prevalence to be even higher among female brothel-based sex workers, at 27.4%.
We therefore hold that reducing HIV infections among this population is reliant on the government implementing harm reduction services that are not currently available, such as needle and syringe programmes and opioid substitution therapy.
In a nation where early sexual debut is common beginning at less than 15 years old for 15% of Nigeria’s youth, HIV vulnerability among young people, alongside very low HIV testing rates will be on the increase.
Alongside the fact that not less than 400,000 children are living with HIV, there is an indirect impact on children in Nigeria whereby they become the caregivers for parents who are living with HIV. Most often this responsibility lies with girls rather than boys. This reflects the imbalance in schooling between the two genders in Nigeria, with girls missing out on HIV education that could teach them how to protect themselves from infection. And when we realise the alarming statistics that of the 190,000 pregnant women said to be living with HIV in 2013 with only 27% of them that received antiretroviral treatment to prevent the transmission of HIV to their child, the disaster waiting to happen can be imagined.
Among other revelations in the country’s fight against HIV/AIDS, the nation can be said to be in for a long walk to freedom from the pandemic.
Accordingly, we ask that improvements in the uptake of HIV testing and counselling, and scaling up access to the most effective antiretroviral regimens among pregnant women and other target groups are essential targets the country must meet if they are to halt the rising numbers of children born with HIV. But this fight must not be for government alone.
In the face of the dipping finances of government, we call on every stakeholder in Project Nigeria to brace up and stand for the fight against the pandemic. And the time to start all over is now.