Lagos takes HIV/AIDS campaign to religious leaders

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Lagos takes HIV/AIDS campaign to religious leaders

For awareness about HIV/AIDS to further reach the people at the grassroots, the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency engages religious leaders in the state in a two-day sensitisation workshop on how to prevent the virus and handle stigmatisation issues, reports Associate Editor ADEKUNLE YUSUF

In times past, getting infected with HIV was the equivalent of a death sentence. But this is not the case anymore, says Dr. Oluseyi Temowo, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency (LSACA). Having HIV is no more a life sentence, especially if the person eats well as recommended and takes all the drugs as prescribed.

As far as Dr. Temowo is concerned, it is tantamount to committing a crime for anybody to die of HIV/AIDS in Lagos. This, according to him, is because the state has put in place various measures to check the spread of the virus and take care of its treatment, adding that the state is truly determined to achieve the eradication of the disease by year 2030.

The LSACA boss said this while delivering his welcome address at a two-day sensitisation workshop for religious leaders in the state on HIV/AIDS prevention. He stressed that the programme was put together for Christian and Islamic religious leaders in the state in appreciation of enormous roles they play in the lives of members of the public, especially in guiding, informing and advising their teeming followers. The sensitisation programme is very critical to the success of the war against HIV/AIDS, he said.

Lamenting that many young adults now see no abnormality in selling their body for money, injecting drugs and indulging in risky sexual behaviours in the process, the LSACA CEO said the onus is on the religious leaders, whom he said the people listen to and respect most, to bail out the country from the quagmire. He said moral decadence is increasing among the youths and other members of the society through unprotected sex and abuse of drugs. Hence, he added that the agency needs to engage the religious leaders to help in cascading HIV/AIDS awareness among their congregation, stressing that religious leaders are critical stakeholders in the campaign to eradicate the scourge.

“This is why we are calling you, our religious leaders. We want you to preach to them in the church and mosque that because there is no money today does not mean that there will be no money tomorrow. Let them know that God is against selling our body because our bodies are the temples of God. These are the teachings we want you to pass down to your subjects, either in the church or in the mosque, such that they will have it at the back of their minds. Once we can control sexual behaviours, I believe we are on the road towards stopping this menace by 2030,” he enjoined the religious leaders.

Speaking on circumcision, Dr. Temowo said while it is good for men, it is unnecessary for women. Even for men, he recommended that religious leaders should educate their followers that the best places to circumcise male children are the hospitals where safe and sterilised equipments are used. Any circumcision not done in the hospital is dangerous, he stressed, calling on faith leaders to discourage their subjects from patronising homes where their children may be infected with HIV in the process of circumcision.

He also warned that the country is also battling with issues of same sex relationships, injection of drugs and commercial sex workers, which he said are avenues that predispose those indulging in the aforementioned acts to being infected with the virus. “The people we used to call prostitutes now call themselves as commercial sex workers. We need your intervention and all the things you can do to help so that Nigeria will not turn into Sodom and Gomorrah. May God give you the wisdom as pastors and imams to deliver these messages back home,” he said.

In the lecture by Dr. Oladipo Fisher, head of projects at LSACA, faith leaders were exposed to current facts and trends in HIV/AIDS issues. According to him, the country is winning the war against the disease, adding that the recent findings by the Nigeria HIV/AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey (NAIIS), one of the largest household surveys on HIV in the world, have provided the proof to that effect. He allayed the religious leaders’ fears, saying the country has fewer people living with HIV than previously estimated, with a national prevalence of 1.4 per cent.

While providing basic facts about the virus, Dr. Fisher said HIV – as dread as it is – does not kill anybody. He emphasised that what the virus only does is to compromise the body immunity and make it vulnerable to all kinds of diseases that can lead to death. The LSACA head of project also told the faith leaders that the campaign against HIV/AIDS has moved from preaching abstinence to encouraging people to play safe and not indulge in risky sexual behaviours, urging the religious leaders to evolve a pragmatic way of communicating this message to their followers without desecrating the altars of God.

During the session for questions and answers, Dr. Temowo told the faith leaders that anyone living with HIV can marry as long as he or she is accessing treatment and taking prescribed drugs. After taking antiretroviral drugs as recommended for about six months, he said the viral load is expected to be low or undetected, meaning that such a person cannot transmit the virus to any person. “Once an infected man is using his drugs regularly, the chances of transmitting to his wife are minimal. In fact, it is almost zero. If he goes back for test and the viral load is undetected, he can marry an uninfected person. Since he cannot transmit the virus to his wife, the baby that will come out will be negative too. The same thing happens if the woman is the one that is infected. As long as she is taking her drugs, her baby will be negative,” he explained, urging the leaders to educate the subjects on these issues.

On HIV/AIDS response in the state, Dr. Temowo said testing and treatment is free in all hospitals designated for such throughout the state, adding that state government deserves kudos for going a step further by starting empowerment programmes for people living with the virus and care givers. This has gone a long way in helping to solve some of the problems people encounter such as discontinuation of treatment as a result of lack of transport fares, he said. He urged religious leaders to always count on LSACA whenever they plan to embark on outreaches, adding that the agency is always ready and willing to visit their community to give free counseling, testing and treatment to their congregation – at no cost whatsoever to the church or mosque. All they need to do is to write to the agency at least three weeks before the programme and ensure that they get the people ready, adding that “we are ready to come with our team, kits and materials.”

He commended Governor Akinwunmi Ambode for the support given to the agency, adding that Lagos offers full-scale HIV testing services to align with the global initiative of 90-90-90. If this trend continues, by 2030, 90 per cent of people in the state would have known their HIV status, and 90 per cent of those that know their status would be able to access anti-retroviral treatment, while those accessing treatment would have suppressed viral load and would not be able to infect others. “Therefore, ‘by 2030 in Lagos, we would have been able to eradicate HIV/AIDS. The agency trucks for on-the-go HIV services are moving to the nooks and crannies of the state to conduct free HIV testing services. This is in addition to the residents being able to access free HIV Counseling and Testing Services across the government hospitals in the state,” Dr. Temowo said.

Concerning stigmatisation of people living with the virus, Dr. Fisher admitted that it is still a problem that is yet to be eradicated, adding that it is a practice that is made worse by cultural issues. If it continues unchecked, stigmatisation is capable of reversing the gains recorded in the fight against HIV, he emphasised. He said stigmatisation makes people not to want to come out for test, which is dangerous for the person and entire society. While enjoining faith leaders to educate their followers on HIV/AIDS, he also reminded them that it is an offence in the state to discriminate against anyone based on his or her HIV status because the law has recommended two years’ imprisonment as penalty for anyone found guilty.

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