Whenever issues come up in life that are hard to share with family, friends or even health professionals, people in Ethiopia dial three popular digits – 952.
The Wegen AIDS Talkline started in 2004 to make it easy for people to freely talk about HIV and AIDS, get information, referrals to services and professional counselling. It can be reached by dialing 952, toll free, from any mobile, landline or public phone.
“It was very hard to talk about your blood status and ask for information about HIV and AIDS back then,” says Melaku Abebe, team leader of the Health Information Centre. “The major reason is crystal clear: it was stigma and discrimination. People were terrified to talk about their blood status with anyone, fearing that they might be labelled and judged.”
He adds: “Due to the lack of trained professionals on HIV, there was also a gap in access for information between urban and rural areas.”
The talkline was considered a great means of addressing these gaps in the fight against HIV. People could call from any corner of the country to get accurate and reliable information without any embarrassment. The service is currently given by 28 counsellors who come from health, psychology and sociology backgrounds.
Melaku has worked for the project since it was established. He says the Wegen AIDS Talkline has successfully provided a service to around eight million users over the past 10 years. There are times when the hotline receives up to 6,000 calls per day.
Martha Wendimu is a counsellor at the call centre, where she has worked for the past eight years. She says: “The service is confidential and that’s why people share things they don’t want to share with anyone in their family. This helps them in so many ways.”
Martha feels proud in what she is doing: “We noticed a big change in the life of so many callers after they talk to us. Some call after they find it hard to talk to their partner about their status. Seeing stressed people getting a relief after talking to us makes me really happy.”
Melaku shares Martha’s feeling. “We are happy in what we are doing and this is the best work that I ever had in my life,” he says.
He says people call in a bad emotional mood after knowing their HIV test result. Some even call saying they are ready to commit suicide. “We provide ongoing counselling to deal with situations like this,” he adds.
Callers also seem to be satisfied with the service. Feedback from one caller states: “Me and my spouse are very happy with your programme. You gave us hope through your advice for people like us, who had no hope. Now we are out from the forest and living with the community without any problem, by maintaining our health condition.”
The Wegen AIDS Talkline is operated by the National AIDS Resource Center of Ethiopia, with technical support from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It was initially being funded by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and now by USAID.
The project is being handed over to the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, which is expected to sustain the talkline and include other services on different health issues.
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