I remember the first time I ever took an HIV test like it was yesterday. I was eighteen year old and preparing for my senior four Uganda national examinations in Kigezi College Butobere, a rather well known school in Kabale if I may say so myself.
I had never kissed a girl, never mind had sexual relations with one, but when the school announced a blood donation drive, followed by HIV tests, I felt faint with fear.
This might sound rather silly now, but back in 1998, the terror that the three letters H-I-V could instill made my fears rather justified. In those days, getting the virus was nothing short of a death sentence, long and painful.
There weren’t any ARV’s or emergency pills that, if swallowed within 48 hours of potential HIV exposure can stop the virus in its tracks.
In fact, there wasn’t a lot of information about condom use; if I remember correctly, many of my peers would slip on more than one condom at a time and some even used kaveera (polythene bags) as a means of protection, instead of using the more expensive and rare condoms.
So, when my test came back negative, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had started getting cold sweats, imagining that the injections I had received for malaria were tainted with the deadly monster.
While the fear we had back then sounds naïve now, the fact of the matter is that HIV rates in Uganda (and for most parts of Africa) fell quite dramatically.
We would switch on the radio and hear Philly Bongoley Lutaaya’s anti-HIV song, ‘Today it’s me’ and billboards screamed ‘AIDS KILLS!’
Fast forward to today.
The old sense of fear is gone. Unprotected sex is back in, especially because birth control and emergency contraception pills are so cheap and easily obtained.
The easy access to ARV’s has made a hitherto deadly disease one that can be managed, something akin to diabetes. And the news coming out is largely positive.
In fact, researchers comparing the HIV outbreak in Botswana and South Africa believe that the HIV virus is becoming weaker, its harder for it to infect someone and it takes longer to totally destroy the body’s immune system.
Throw in the positive news about the search for a HIV cure, and one would think that there is no longer anything to worry about.
That, my dear friends, would be a huge mistake. Our neighbour to the north, Uganda, so long an HIV fight success story, is seeing its national HIV rates rise once again in the 25-35 age group and even here in Rwanda, one new HIV infection occurs every thirty minutes.
That is 48 new infections every single day. 17, 520 Rwandans are infected with HIV EVERY YEAR! Let that sink in.
Now let us look at the way we are treating the latest global health scare, Ebola. Everyone is in a panic; pharmaceuticals are in a tizzy, trying to invent the best anti-Ebola serum, politicians are putting nurses in quarantine and the mass media seem to have an Ebola ‘angle’ to almost a news story.
One would think that it had killed more than the couple thousand people. But it hasn’t. Comparing that number with the people who’ve died of AIDS this year will make you realise that we are in danger of taking our eyes off the ball.
HIV hasn’t gone anywhere.
Here in Rwanda, the theme of this year’s AIDS Day is the ‘Role of Role of Media in early HIV treatment to reduce Aids related morbidity and mortality’. It is in this vein that I challenge fellow bloggers, writers, radio and television journalists to keep HIV on the front burner.
Disseminate positive HIV stories by all means (pun intended). However, never forget to inform the audience that AIDS still kills! Nothing much has changed in that regard. Let us never forget that.
Sunny Ntayombya is an editor at The New Times