Tope Akinwande and Joe Lowry
The Red Cross and Red Crescent in West Africa laid out their anti-AIDS agenda in no uncertain terms on World AIDS Day, with youth and other volunteers participating in parades, debates and events from Cape Verde to Nigeria.
This upscaling of activities has come in the nick of time - with a prevalence rate between 10% and 12%, West Africa is still well far behind Southern Africa where some countries have recorded a prevalence rate of 32%. Hence, the Federation's West Africa regional delegation has been agitating for increased involvement in the fight against the pandemic, before a real crisis situation is reached.
The need to capitalise on new partnerships, and to use the Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers to bring prevention messages to the remotest parts of the region was emphasised by Head of West Africa Regional Delegation Niels Scott, in a keynote address to a seminar organised by the African Development Bank. Titled "AIDS, Poverty and Debt Relief" the seminar brought together partners from UNAIDS,
RETROCI( the Ivorian Centre for Disease Control) and other NGOs involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Quoting former Federation President Astrid Heiburg, Mr Scott said "With our global network of volunteers, members and staff, we are able to play an essential role in co-ordinating and supporting local efforts to combat the disease. It is in the communities that the battle against HIV/AIDS is going to be won. It is in the communities that our volunteers can use our unique network to promote prevention, because volunteers are part of the community, and are friends, peers and leaders who are able to change mindsets".
He also addressed the Federation's commitment to the reduction of stigma and discrimination, inclusion of people living with AIDS into programmes, and access to adequate medical care including access to all needed drugs.
While visitors to West Africa's capitals might think that government and NGO sensitisation campaigns are high-profile, the story is far different in rural areas, where, unlike Eastern and Southern Africa, AIDS and its means of transmission are taboo subjects in much of rural West Africa.
National Societies in West Africa organised different activities to mark the World AIDS Day. Cote d'Ivoire Red Cross chose Daloa, a city in the Western part of the country. Speaking on the choice of Daloa, the HIV/AIDS Co-ordinator of Cote d'Ivoire Red Cross, Dr. Kouame Abo said that as Daloa is a commercial centre where traders from West African countries like Mali, Burkina, Guinea, Liberia and Burkina Faso converge it was necessary to sensitise these traders, truck drivers, sex workers and the populace before the pandemic gets out of control.
The Regional Information and Health team also toured Daloa to see how the Local Red Cross,in collaboration with other government organisations and NGOs have been working with people living with HIV/AIDS, and used HIV+ volunteers from an Abidjan-based NGO "Lumiere Action" to start to break down barriers of stigma and prejudice.
Meanwhile the Ghana Red Cross organised an "AIDS Walk" in the capital city, Accra to sensitise the general population about what the Red Cross has been doing to combat HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Sierra-Leone Red Cross joined the National AIDS Control Programme, UNICEF, WHO and other stakeholders to celebrate World AIDS Day through radio discussions, community sensitisation, condom distribution, symposia and drama in different parts of the country.
Togo Red Cross organised an "AIDS Carnival" in Lome, in collaboration with other NGOs involved in the fight against AIDS. Gala nights and cultural events were also organised across the country.
On the other side of the region, the islanders of Cape Verde placed the emphasis on youth, holding information and sensitisation sessions, supported by Red Cross youth volunteers. The head of the health section was one of the judges in a debating competition sponsored by Peace Corps.
Nigerian Red Cross held a 30-km march started by the wife of the governor of Lagos State. Condoms were distributed to participants and passers-by. Burkina Faso Red Cross made sure it had a high profile, organising programmes in all the provinces. A march to showcases their network of volunteers and the possibility of using them to combat HIV/AIDS, and a Red Cross caravan has is embarking on a nation-wide sensibilisation tour.
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