Angola: HIV Stigma Persists

2/8/2010 - The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS continues to impede progress towards the total eradication of vertical transmission in Angola and nearby Zimbabwe.

Oftentimes, children living with HIV/AIDS miss out on their childhoods. They may be too sick to partake in the games their peers play; they may be taking care of their parents who are also sick with the virus; or, they may be facing the systematic prejudice that comes from the social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. In other words, they may be battling persistent exclusion from their communities and other children.

In many parts of Africa, HIV is misunderstood and those who are afflicted with it may be relegated to the bottom-most spheres of society.

There are approximately 190 000 people living with HIV or AIDS in Angola at present. The overwhelming majority of them – 110 000 – are women. 17 000 are children under the age of 14. It is vital that these women receive the right anti-retroviral (ARV) treatments to extend their own lives and prevent the transmission of the virus to any children they might bear. This type of “vertical” transmission is very preventable with the correct ARV regimen.

The first step in preventing mother-to-child-transmission (PMTCT) of the virus is testing pregnant mothers for HIV, followed by a referral to a specialist for follow-up treatments if the test comes back positive. However, many women are terrified of even taking an HIV test in fear that it comes back positive. They could be rejected and ostracized by their family members and neighbours.

A similar story follows in Zimbabwe, where health care workers have difficulty convincing sexually active young women, pregnant women and new mothers to take an HIV test or even to follow the appropriate "low-risk" behaviours needed for PMTCT. The reason for this is that some important methods of PMTCT, such as not breastfeeding, will “giver the mother away,” to neighbours and the community, who notice abnormal behaviour.

If a child is born positive, he or she – like any other adult – must be provided with ARV drugs and must be able to access adequate care form a trained paediatrician.  While many children who are infected are too young to know what it really means, the supports to help both mother and child and educate the community should be put in place so that no women ever has to choose between the protection of belonging to a social group and the treatment necessary to save her own life and the life of her child.

Evermore creative efforts are being made to educate all levels of the public about HIV/AIDS – to dispel urban legends and to debunk any remaining myths surrounding the virus. Sesame Street spinoff “Sesame Square” in Nigeria has launched a new HIV-positive puppet named Kami, who hosted the session. Kami is very much a normal girl with a zest for life and adventure.

Such messages are important to normalize relations between children and parents living with HIV and those living without it, as well as to foster a more inclusive environment, ensuring that all children are able to fully exercise their right to childhood.

If the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS can be broken down, it would mean that those previously banished to the fringes of society would be better able to partake in the economic and social life of the community.