As the world marks the 2014 World HIV Day today, one crucial question that strikes the mind is: How have those living with the HIV virus in Nigeria been faring since they were diagnosed with the disease?
Another question is: How far have the relevant government bodies championing the campaign against the spread of the virus gone in combating the disease?
Narrowing these questions to the those living with the virus in the Federal Capital Territory(FCT), can it really be said that in the last one year for instance, the infected population have fared well and the fight has recorded remarkable success?
The journey so far, from events that have unfolded recently could be described as a mixed bag of success and failure.
For the infected FCT population, the year 2014 has been such a hard time that they cannot but wish it should pass away faster than it is going, as they hope for better times in the coming year.
It would seem that with the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease in some West African Countries and a few other countries this year, with Nigeria recording its first case in July, all attention has been shifted from the fight against HIV to containment of the Ebola disease, which has killed over 5000 people.
According to people living with HIV, watching thousands of their colleagues die in recent months due to neglect on the part of government and inadequate funding is so disheartening.
The ongoing withdrawal from Nigeria, of funding support to HIV/AIDS by foreign partners and donor agencies have further aggravated their condition.
Although the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) and the Network of People Living with HIV/ AIDS in NIgeria (NEPWHAN) ought to be working together to fight the virus in our country, but events that have played out recently suggest that the reverse is the case.
Helpless and desperate for solutions to their many challenges, people living with HIV/ AIDS in the FCT under the aegis of NEPHWAN, barely a month ago, stormed the headquarters of NACA in Abuja to protest their alleged neglect by the Government.
The over 250 patients premised their action on “the miserable conditions of people living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria as well as high number of people dying daily from AIDS-related complications due to lack of access to antiretroviral drugs, and the ongoing withdrawal of funding support for HIV/AIDS to Nigeria by external funding partners.”
As early as 6.30am, they besieged the NACA office, tying palm fronds on their mouths and every part of their body and wielding placards with different anti-government inscriptions which indicated their loss of confidence in NACA’s ability to fast track the implementation of the Presidential Comprehensive Response Plan(PCRP) which was inaugurated by Jonathan late last year and scheduled to end by the end of 2014.
The protesters, including young men and women carrying children, besieged the major entrance to the office of the Director General of NACA, Prof. John Idoko, baring him and other staff from entering the building.
Specifically, they accused NACA of failing to implement the PCRP inaugurated by President Goodluck Jonathan to bridge the existing treatment access gaps.
An estimated sum of N8bn had been appropriated by the Federal Government for the PCRP, out of the estimated N140bn. However, The Nigerian Times learnt that only 20 per cent of the funds had been released.
While vowing to continue the protest for the next 25 days, spokesperson for NEPWHAN, Mr. Sumaila Garba had told journalists that the NACA office would remain under lock and key through the duration.
According to him, NEPWHAN had realised that none of the targets set for the PCRP had been achieved due to lack of funds for HIV/AIDS.
He told journalists that out of the N8bn budgeted by the government for the implementation of the PCRP in 2014, only 20 per cent, representing less than 5.7 per cent of the estimated budget, was appropriated for HIV/AIDS under the SURE-P “which we hear is now targeted only to Taraba and Abia states.”
On his part, National Secretary of NEPHWAN, Mr. Victor Omosahon, alleged that the NACA boss had failed in his primary duty which is the welfare of over 3.5 million NEPWHAN members across Nigeria.
Omosahon also alleged that several meetings with the leadership of NACA failed to yield result, especially in the implementation of the funds to assist the people in the treatment of the virus.
“We are concerned with the miserable conditions of the people living with the virus in Nigeria, as well as the high number of people dying daily from AIDS-related complications due to the lack of access to anti-retroviral drugs and the on-going withdrawal of funding support for HIV/AIDS to Nigeria by external funding partners,” he said.
The National Secretary expressed disappointment that only 649,000 HIV positive persons out of 1.8 million that were eligible for the treatment were getting access to anti-retroviral drugs, which represents only 30 per cent of those who need it.
At the FCT level, in an exclusive interview with The Nigerian Times, the Coordinator of NEPWHAN FCT chapter, John Okene rated the FCT zero in terms of funding, care and support for those living with HIV/AIDS in the Territory, compared to other states.
He said: “Throughout this year, we have not received anything from the FCT administration. Even all our staff are no longer coming to the office because we can not pay them. We have been borrowing money from the bank.
“The situation is really really bad. Our members are calling me from Wuse and I tell them there is nothing we can do. Even common medical care we cannot get. We go out to do our routine CD count in private facilities which cost us so much money. I can’t even go to the health facilities frequently like before to check on our members.”
The FCT NEPWHAN coordinator lamented that: “Our big men are busy using the Ebola issue to steal money while the high risk of HIV in the country is increasing.”
He further regretted that the global threat is that Nigeria will become number one in HIV prevalence with what is happening.
According to him, due to government negligence, the HIV prevalent rate in the FCT has increased by 25 per cent this year with especially children being infected.
His words: “This year the HIV prevalence has increased by 25 percent. In the whole 36 states, FCT is the worst. In Abuja more people are getting infected. Children are getting infected a lot.
“I was trying to form a support group recently and I discovered that in National Hospital, could you believe in a day we get 150 HIV positive children in attendance.”
Okene attributed this alarming development to lack of support for Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission Care( PMTC) mothers who when told not to breast feed their newborn, violate the instruction because of their economic situation, thereby exposing them to the virus.
He said the association used to support the PMTC mothers with cash, food when there was funding, because 80 per cent of them cannot afford baby milk.
Okene said the association had tabled many requests before the FCT administration like care and support for patients and shouldering of administrative cost of the association, but it has failed to respond.
“We are just hoping that there will be change of government and the a new minister will be appointed that will be sensitive to our needs,” he added.
But the Project Coordinator, FCT Agency for the Control of AIDS, Dr Uche Okoro denied that the HIV prevalence has increased this year.
Although Dr Okoro said no new HIV survey has been carried out since the last conducted in 2012, he argued that the prevalence had dropped from 8.5 in 2010 to 3.5 in 2012.
He denied the sharp rise in the number of infected children in Abuja as according to him, if that was the case it would have been confirmed at a meeting of Monitoring and evaluation team from each hospital last week.
“There was a meeting of M and E team from all our hospitals yesterday and this was not mentioned so, I don’t know why they will make such pronouncement without evidence,” he queried.
He said drugs were available for the patients in FCT facilities and the drug is working so they are doing well, adding: “We have engaged CSOs to provide for them”.
On the issue of CD count test which patients can not access in FCT facilities, the coordinator said it is a national issue which is also affecting other states.
“CD count is a national issue not restricted to FCT. It is a federal government policy. Issues that has to do with drugs, HIV test FCT has nothing to do with it,” he said.
“In FCT in 2013, 228,000 people did HIV test against 130,000 in the previous year and this cost us so much money.
“Also in 2013, 78,582 pregnant women went through PMTC clinic out of which 4,000 were positive.
“About 2,155 exposed babies whose parents are positive also went through PMTC.”
Prodded further on what care and support they have offered this year, Dr Okoro said: “We don’t work in isolation. There are other NGOs we use to carry out home based care who are being funded by our foreign partners and donor agencies.
“So it doesn’t mean the funding must come directly from the FCT administration. So, whatever money they get and use to support those living with HIV in FCT is attributed to the FCTA.”
Responding however to the allegations, the NACA boss explained that the PCRP had four cardinal interventions, including the expansion of double treatment to where they are at the point, 600,000 to 1.4 million.
“I want to also emphasise that the Federal Government’s programme which is starting now, after about 10 years of waiting will take care of the laboratory test of all the patients who are on drugs free of charge.
“I want to emphasise that as we move on this year, starting from Taraba and Abia states, all the patients who are in those states will have free laboratory tests. And, as we expand, they will also continue to enjoy our services,” he assured.
Continuing, Idoko added that: “I also need to mention a few other things. Testing is a major issue. We are testing in all the 36 states and the FCT. It is not that two states alone are being considered. It is a whole country.”
While admitting the gap he said: “True to it, as part of this transformation agenda, the government decided to fund it. But it is very far from where we should be. The fund for this today should be like N140bn, but only N8bn that has been appropriated.”
With the reality on ground,observers have pointed out that disaster looms if the Nigerian government fails to fill the gap.
The efforts of the foreign donors and partners who are now withdrawing their support have been quite commendable, hence it will be worthwhile for our government to continue from where they have stopped instead of backing out when the fight against spread of HIV has not yet been won.
Efforts need to be stepped up to completely stop new transmission and improve the lives of those living with the virus.
This can only be achieved through adequate funding, prompt release of intervention funds and transparency in the management of SURE-P funds meant for HIV projects.