NIGERIA AND THE HIV/AIDS BURDEN

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Government must do more to contain the epidemic

The misery index in the country seems to be increasing on all fronts. At a time many countries have learnt to tame the HIV/AIDS challenge, it is saddening that Nigeria is still in the throes of “Africa’s death sentence”. The World’s AIDS Day was marked recently with the revelation that Nigeria is the second most ravaged country in the world after South Africa.

More than three million Nigerians are believed to be living with the dreaded disease. To compound the problem, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has also estimated that no fewer than 270,000 children below the age of 14 years were living with HIV in Nigeria in 2016. The figure represented half the number of the total (540,000) infected children in West and Central Africa over the same period.

While calling for improvement of early diagnosis and access to HIV treatment and care for children, Marie-Pierre Poirier, the UNICEF Director, West and Central Africa, revealed more chilling statistics: Nigeria recorded 37,000 new HIV infections among children out of the total of 60,000 new infections in West and Central Africa over the same period. This represents 62 per cent of the new infections while four in five children living with HIV in West and Central Africa still do not receive life-saving antiretroviral therapy. “It is tragic that so many children and adolescents today are not receiving the treatment they need just because they have not been tested,” Poirier said.

With a growing youth population, Nigeria is vulnerable to the prevalence of the disease except those whose duties entail curbing the spread of HIV virus redouble their efforts. A major problem in the attempt to tackle the challenge is the limited capacity to perform the tests needed for early infant diagnosis. “Without knowing a child’s HIV status, his or her family is less likely to seek the treatment that could prevent the tragedy of a child’s death from AIDS-related illnesses,” argued UNICEF. It added that the situation is worse among adolescents because “the annual number of new HIV infections among those aged 15 to 19 years in the region now exceeds that of children aged 0 to 14 years. These new infections occur mostly through unprotected sexual contact and among adolescent girls.”

As recently observed by the Minister of State for Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, HIV/AIDS is still a serious public health issue in the country with enormous negative impact on the economy. Yet one of the key issues fingered by health authorities for the present scary state of affair is inadequate funding. For instance, less than 50 per cent of people needing anti-retroviral treatment have access while barely half the numbers of people living with HIV know their status.

The worry is that the situation seems to be getting worse by the day while critical agencies of government continue to understate the national prevalence rate of the dreaded disease as well as the total number of people living with HIV and AIDS in Nigeria.

Against the background that Nigeria was doing well in battling the scourge a few years ago, there is an urgent need for government, at all levels, to show renewed commitment in fighting the disease. For that to happen, the health authorities must scale up their enlightenment campaigns, particularly in the rural areas, on the many risk behaviours that could lead to infections, including unprotected sex, said to account for about 80 per cent of new infections in the country. Nigeria has what it takes to stop new transmission and improve the lives of those living with the virus.