UK Labour MP learns from community response to HIV in Uganda

Last month, Diane Abbott, an MP from the UK’s Labour Party and the shadow secretary of state for international development, visited Uganda to find out how the country is tackling HIV.

Last month, Diane Abbott, an MP from the UK’s Labour Party and the shadow secretary of state for international development, visited Uganda to find out how the country is tackling HIV.

During the visit, which was coordinated by Community Health Alliance Uganda, Abbott visited civil society organisations working directly with people who are most at risk of HIV infection.

Abbott revealed the purpose of her visit was to look at the role these organisations play in the fight against HIV and AIDS. “We are going to advocate for more funds for such organisations in the UK and bring the attention of the British government to the importance of civil society organisations in the fight against HIV and AIDS,” she said.*

Reaching those most at risk

Abbott visited the Most At Risk Population Initiative (MARPI), which is run by the Ministry of Health and gives friendly health services to people who are most at risk of HIV infection. These include men who have sex with men, sex workers, fishing communities, truck drivers and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

During the visit Dr John Lule, an epidemiologist at MARPI, said it is important to reach these groups in the prevention of HIV, because they face a higher prevalence of the virus than the general public. This is because they engage in high risk sex and face stigma, discrimination and violence, which forces many to live hidden lives and makes it difficult for them to freely access services. He added that the government needed to create an “enabling environment” to make it easier for these groups to access health services and for service providers to offer them.

Sanaz Sedigh, programme officer for UNAIDS in Uganda, added: “Key populations are at risk in Uganda. If we don’t tackle the issue and health for them, HIV prevalence will remain high. UNAIDS is trying to involve two key populations on the programme of the government in Uganda to advocate for health, with the help of MARPI and the Uganda AIDS Commission, in order to reduce HIV prevalence.”

Discriminatory laws

Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and those found guilty face prison sentences of up to 14 years.** The law also has penalties for individuals, companies, media organisations or non-government organisations that support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This makes it difficult for civil society organisations involved in the response to HIV to reach the people who are most in need of services.

Ice Breakers Uganda is another organisation Abbott visited, which helps lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people access friendly services. Denis Wamala, programmes officer, said: “We opted for basic ways of how to work with the bill. We do outreach in communities for those who are in the closet but we changed our strategies. We also reach out to other people who would wish to test for HIV, and who are not lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and mobilise peer networks.”

Abbot also visited the Lady Mermaid Bureau, an organisation which helps sex workers access health services. Members of the bureau can receive friendly services, with the help of the Community Health Alliance Uganda.

Hajjarah, executive director of the Lady Mermaid Bureau, said: “We have strong relationships with brothel managers. We give out condoms and we help members get out of police cells. We face discrimination and all sorts of abuses. We have been advocating for policy change at local level and national level.”

Setback in reducing HIV prevalence

Commenting on the law, Professor Vinand Nantulya, chairman of the Uganda AIDS Commission, said: “The government of Uganda was held captive by the religious leaders and this meant a setback in HIV prevalence. The law cannot be implemented because it fights the health law in terms of programming for key populations.”

He added that treatment should be available for everyone who needs it and that in order to address HIV it is vital to address the issues of key populations, including sex workers and men who have sex with men.

“We should put them on treatment instead of waiting for CD4 counts to go down,” he said. “If I had money I would put everyone on treatment and HIV prevalence will be down in Uganda.”

*The copy has been amended removing an incorrect sentence about Abbott implying the Ugandan government should be a recipient of UK government funds to fight HIV.

**The copy has been amended removing a sentence about the law which was worded incorrectly.

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