The Public Affairs Section of the United States Embassy recently held a photo exhibition to commemorate the 15th Anniversary of the Presidential Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. ONWUKA NZESHI reports
The Atrium Centre Court on the ground floor of the Jabi Lake Mall witnessed an unusual gathering last Thursday and not a few visitors to the sprawling shopping centre paused on their tracks to catch a glimpse. Some men and women were observed standing together and admiring some photographs on the wall.
It was an event to commemorate 15 years of collaboration between the United States and Nigeria in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the deadly viral scourge that once threatened to wipe away the entire human race.
In Nigeria and many African countries, HIV/AIDS was a death sentence and those afflicted were simply helpless because the healthcare systems lacked the capacity to handle the scourge.
Medical doctors and other health workers were gripped with fear of not just the unknown but were traumatized by the thoughts of contracting the deadly disease. They decided those who would live and those condemned to die by simply diagnosing that one was HIV positive. Indeed, many were left to die as the health system had no solution to their strange ailment.
That was the scary situation until 2003 when the then President of the United States, George Bush, launched the Presidential Emergency Plan For AIDS (PEPFAR), a programme through which the US funded the treatment and care for victims of the disease across the world.
The theme for the anniversary was “Standing together, Saving lives, Improving Communities.” It was designed to highlight PEPFAR’s contribution to the HIV/AIDS response in Nigeria. The photo exhibition showcased the success stories in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care in Nigeria over the past 15 years.
As a prelude to celebration, a young lady from the crowd grabbed the microphone and told a story of how she lost three members of her family to the disease. She recalled the emotional trauma she went through over these losses and how relieved she later became. Perhaps, it was that painful experience that spurred her into becoming one of the champions of PEPFAR to save other lives.
Chargé d’Affaires, US Embassy, Abuja, Mr. David J. Young, who was at the solemn event said that through the initiative, the US government has provided over $5billion for HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care programmes as well as developed the capacity of Nigeria’s health system. Young recalled that as one of the first countries to begin a National Treatment Programme, Nigeria had about 15,000 men, women and children on Anti Retroviral Therapy at the beginning.
There were doubts whether prevention or treatment could ever succeed in an environment where resources for treatment and care were limited and where HIV was considered a death sentence, the programme has achieved significant targets.
“Measures of our progress includes the over 779,000 currently on HIV treatment. Last year alone, approximately 7.7 million people have received HIV/AIDS counselling services and more than 6.6 million pregnant women received HIV test and counselling to prevent mother to child transmission. More than one million orphans and vulnerable children have received care and support.
“So far, the lives that together we have touched, the lives that we have changed and the lives that we have saved offers a resounding testimony for the partnership here in Nigeria.
“It has been a worthy effort when we think of the individual lives touched by the programme,” he said.
Young also applauded the American government and people for sustaining the initiative for the past 15 years through the administrations of former President Barrack Obama and now President Donald Trump.
“At the last count, our global commitment (on PEPFAR) stands at $72 billion, combating what has been described as the worst human scourge that has threatened public health in history.
“The efforts we have made in fighting HIV/AIDS is a triumph of science; it’s a triumph of compassion; it’s a triumph of commitment in our work together to make a difference in millions and millions of people’s lives,” Young said.
Nigeria’s Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, also acknowledged that it was a celebration of the victory of science over death and disease that the landscape of HIV/AIDS represented at the beginning. Adewole recalled that at about 1988/1990 when the HIV/AIDS had become a big concern, no one thought there was treatment and all the physicians could do was to counsel people on prevention, being faithful to one’s partner and the use of condoms.
“There were frightening stories about people being executed in Cuba and Ethiopia simply because they were HIV positive. We started the process through the Bill & Mellinda Gates Foundation but even within the context of treatment, we still focused on prevention.
“Then the game changer came in 2003 and massively changed the landscape. We were able to move beyond the original 10,0000 persons that were in the National Treatment Programme and within a short time the whole story changed.
“This is victory of science over disease and death and it shows what the human mind can do. It also shows the limitless horizon of generosity and compassion.
“A few years before PEPFAR, they were brought to the health facilities on trolleys and wheelchairs. They could not talk, walk or stand up. Today, I think something really has changed.
We have a situation where we are giving life, improving the quality of life and transforming the entire disease spectrum from a hopeless situation to one where there is hope,” Adewole said.
The PEPFAR anniversary, the minister said, was an opportunity to appreciate the government and people of the United States for their contributions towards sustaining the ambitious intervention. He also paid glowing tributes to all those field officers in Nigeria who made the programme a success.
Director General, Health Implementation Programme, Federal Ministry of Defence, Abuja, Brig. Gen. Nurudeen Hussain, also applauded the US government for its initiative in partnering with Nigeria .He gave an account of how the military was adversely impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic before PEPFAR came to the rescue.
Hussain said that access to health facilities where early diagnosis and treatment could be got has helped the Nigeria Army to contain the scourge in no small measure.
As the session of tributes came to a close, the guests drawn from the diplomatic corps, Nigeria Army, Federal Ministry of Health, National Agency for the Control of HIV/ AIDS and the mass media were taken on a guided tour of the pictorial exhibition. The photographs which showed several victims of HIV/AIDS before and after they received treatment were simply amazing and unbelievable. It was a psychological therapy to those on the tour and would definitely be a soothing balm to other visitors to the mall as they would encounter these images as they make their way to savour the cool, serene atmosphere at the lakeside resort.
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