Today, the 1st of December 2014, and as we have always done for more than 25 years, we commemorate World AIDS Day. The 2014 Theme is “FOCUS, PARTNER, ACHIEVE: AN AIDS FREE GENERATION.” As always, a befitting theme indeed in the continued fight against an epidemic that has so far claimed 39 million lives since it was first reported.
I woke up today eager to find the theme for this year, and make sense of it. A theme, by definition, is ‘the subject of a talk,’ and l got a bit depressed on how many themes have been coined on a yearly basis as a dedication to eradicate HIV, because l saw more effort in coming up with themes and “sugar-coating” the pandemic, and not much in the actual fight on the ground. So l decided to walk through each themed year and pick on pointers and progress that has been made world over the past two and half decades.
Going over these statistics, I was drawn to the reality that the response to HIV over the years has been quite a protracted struggle, but hope remains alive in every corner of the world. I believe that stigma and discrimination have been a leading factor in hampering efforts to eradicate the pandemic off the face of the earth. Of course the fact that an outright cure has not been found has our heads cracking concerning how to at least contain and control the spread of the virus.
Areas such as prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) and calls for behavior change have brought positives over the years as they have almost ensured the bringing forth of HIV negative babies from infected mothers. Knowing one’s status is an issue that definitely needs to be taken seriously because recent statistics show that currently at least 35 million people are infected with HIV, but some do not even know that they are infected hence the continued risk of spreading the virus. Therefore, it is imperative that people take getting tested seriously for their own good and for the good of their partners.
I am glad that there is an abundance of information, information dissemination and awareness programs that have helped spread knowledge on the virus. I remember in 2013 when my organization, Footballers Union of Zimbabwe, went on a countrywide tour in Zimbabwe to train professional female soccer players on the pandemic. I realized that there is basic knowledge about HIV, but there remained the need to continue the discussion in a free, friendly and engaging environment which saw quite a number of issues being raised and discussed.
HIV cannot be isolated from a lot of societal issues that affect the ordinary person. Gender roles, backgrounds, cultural, religious and societal dynamics always play a role in the way in which HIV can affect individuals and communities. Our discussions were very informative and eye opening throughout the workshops: the bottom line being to talk about the virus, and dispel false myths that surrounded it for years.
In partnership with PEPFAR on the same project we held a number of soccer tournaments around the country for young adolescent boys. With the presence of popular professional soccer stars, we drew crowds of spectators who came to have fun at the tournament while at the same time having a relaxed environment to discuss the pandemic with their favorite soccer players, whom they had only seen on television, heard on radio or read about in the newspapers.
With soccer being the most popular sport in Zimbabwe, many young people look up to the professionals not only as celebrities but as role models too. It was in this vein that these professionals took off their playing boots and took on the role of officiating at the tournaments and taking time during the games’ half time periods to educate youngsters on the dangers of HIV and the importance of prevention of infection.
As Mother Teresa aptly put it when she said, “W e ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop,” I feel that no matter how small our efforts may seem, they definitely have a ripple effect that spreads as far as possible.
Although we may not have a cure for HIV, there has undoubtedly been significant progress in the fight to wipe it off the face of the earth. At the same time it is not time to relax but to keep working hard, with particular emphasis on developing nations. Our countries need to invest in and prioritize efficient health systems and also invest health workers, from lab technicians, doctors, nurses, to truck drivers who will deliver antiretroviral therapies and other medications to healthcare centers anywhere in the nation.
There is need to avoid ‘blacklisting’ key populations in our countries. An example is commercial sex workers who pose a very high risk of either transmitting HIV or being infected by their clients. Instead of treating them as outcasts, I believe they need to be involved as partners in the fight. In addition to this, we need innovative and creative partnerships in this fight. The inclusion of local celebrities such as soccer players, musicians, actors, comedians and even taxi drivers would make a lot of sense as these ‘strange bedfellows’ so to speak will no doubt lead effective campaigns.
Of course there is the undeniable need to ensure the availability and access to antiretroviral therapy to treat the virus by reducing the viral load in infected person which in turn reduces the chances of its transmission to their negative partners. And so although individually we are one drop, let us remember that together we are an ocean. Let our themes and talking points propel us to action as we FOCUS,PARTNER, and ACHIEVE:AN AIDS FREE GENERATION.