Why we should all get tested for HIV in 2014

Two days after World AIDS Day (1 December), I’m sure many people will have put the issue of HIV out of their mind, but it’s not an issue we can afford to think about just once a year.

Two days after World AIDS Day (1 December), I’m sure many people will have put the issue of HIV out of their mind, but it’s not an issue we can afford to think about just once a year.

Uganda’s theme for this year’s celebration was ‘re-engaging communities for effective HIV prevention’. Knowing one’s status is key to preventing new infections and we should follow the example of His Excellency the President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who recently tested for HIV publicly.

Getting tested is important as it helps you make the right decisions and access appropriate health services. Despite this, too many Ugandans still do not know their status and I’m calling upon all people to take an HIV test.

Benefits of knowing your HIV status

If you test negative, as the great majority of Ugandans are, you will be given information, advice and services to enable you to remain negative. If you test positive, the government will offer you free antiretroviral treatment. So do come forward and take the test. It is for your good.

Finding out early that you are HIV positive means you will receive the necessary care and treatment to enjoy a good quality of life.

If you are a pregnant woman who tests HIV positive early, you will receive treatment and help to deliver an HIV-free baby. Fathers, too, should take the test because your child needs you to be alive and well, and knowing your status will enable you to support your wife.

For couples who are discordant (where one is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative), the negative partner will be helped to remain negative, while the positive partner will be placed on treatment without waiting for their CD4 cell count (which measures the level of infection) to reach the standard level for initiating treatment.

Progress in fight against HIV

Over the past year, the government of Uganda has intensified its efforts to fight the HIV epidemic. As a result we are starting to see progress.

In 2013 it was estimated that the number of new infections fell by about 14 per cent to 137,000 compared to the 160,000 new infections in 2011, according to the Uganda Aids Commission.

Moreover, Uganda has put more people on HIV treatment in 2013 than those who acquired HIV in the same period. In 2013, 193,000 patients were enrolled onto treatment, compared to 140,000 new infections in this same year, according to the Ministry of Health.

Significant progress has also been made in putting 96 per cent of an estimated 100,000 HIV positive pregnant women on free antiretrovirals in 2013. The number of babies born with HIV infections has fallen from 28,000 in 2011 to 15,000 in 2013.

The more people living with HIV who are put on treatment, the more the country will suppress the viral load circulating in the community and protect more people from getting infected.

Prevention messages

In Uganda, HIV is mostly acquired through unsafe sex, while only ten per cent is transmitted through a mother to her unborn child. Less than 1 per cent is transmitted through blood transfusion and other means of blood contact.

In spite of the progress made there are still common misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted. For instance, some Ugandans believe HIV can be caused through mosquito bites. This is wrong and there is no evidence to support such thinking. It shows why clear prevention messages are vital in ending new infections.

A new HIV prevention message, which calls for people to get tested, has been disseminated to parliament, cultural leaders and local government leaders to pass on to their constituencies. A letter which carries messages on HIV prevention, signed by all the top religious leaders, is also being rolled out. This letter will be read to followers in all mosques and churches every week for the next year.

Choose to live responsibly

Recent studies conducted in Uganda reveal new groups at increased risk of HIV infection. These include boda-boda riders (bicycle taxis), housemaids, university students, fishing communities and married couples. Looking at these population groups, every one of us is at risk.

I therefore appeal to all Ugandans to take an HIV test, like President Museveni and other leaders have done, before the end of 2014.

Let us resolve to live responsibly and have a productive lifestyle in the New Year. Each of us has a choice to protect ourselves, and those we care about. Lastly I call upon Ugandans to stop discriminating against persons infected with HIV. It is inhumane to discriminate against fellow human beings, irrespective of race, religion and health status. Let us join together to strive for an HIV-free Uganda.

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