Taming the HIV tide in Lesotho

Publié: 29 juin 2011 16:06 CET

By Tapiwa Gomo in Lesotho

June 2011 marked 30 years after the discovery of an unusual kind of pneumonia, which could only be referred as rare cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Further studies suggested that Kaposi’s sarcoma, now known as HIV, had the potential to wipe away the entire world population in less than half a century if a cure could not be found.

Most countries saw this new virus as a remote disease, and it was treated with clumsiness. But HIV steadfastly crept in far and wide like a veldt fire. Its effects on a society are devastating and not easy to ignore. Chilling campaign messages epitomised the initial response from governments as it became a story of death and sorrow.

Over that 30 years, more than 25 million people have lost their lives due to AIDS-related illnesses and 34 million are infected. Sub-Saharan Africa has become the pandemic epicentre with over 14.8  million children orphaned by the disease. 

Lesotho is among the worst affected countries, where nearly a quarter of the adult population is estimated to be HIV positive – the third highest HIV prevalence in the world. Crippling poverty, combined with AIDS, has caused average life expectancy to drop to 51 years. The impact on individuals, families and the whole nation is being felt as adults became too sick to work, and children orphaned by AIDS are left to run households.

But this burden seems to be easing in Lesotho. Armed with knowledge and treatment, the people of Kena region in the remote and rural Lesotho now see HIV differently.

“HIV is not a death sentence as we used to understand it. It is a condition which needs to be managed properly,” said Matsebetso Lekhoba.

She is among the millions of people living with HIV since 2004 after she lost her first child due to tuberculosis. Like many people during that time, she was faced with fear.

“That time it was not easy to accept my status, as being HIV positive was the same as waiting for death. I was afraid of death. My dream of having a family and children of my own faded the moment I was informed of status. I became even more worried as I watched many people die of AIDS related illnesses in my village,” she narrated.

Her fears grew as she found herself gradually isolated due to stigma and discrimination associated with the HIV.

Life after diagnosis

As she walked the lonely journey of her life clouded with fear and uncertainty, a close family member introduced her to Lesotho Red Cross support group comprising mainly women living with HIV. This was part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies’ five-year programme in Southern Africa launched in 2006 to prevent new infections and reinforce treatment and support systems in ten countries which include Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The programme aimed to reach 50 million of people with prevention messages,  provide  care treatment and support services to 250,000 HIV-infected persons and 460,000 OVC as well to tackle stigma and discrimination including gender based violence.

“The first time, I didn’t believe this group was genuine but after a couple of days, the group members made me realise that there was life after testing HIV positive. We meet regularly, through the facilitation of the Lesotho Red Cross, to discuss our challenges and coping mechanisms.

“We share information about how to live positively such as the type of food to eat. Through the support of the (Lesotho) Red Cross we now grow vegetables to supplement our nutrition and sale surplus to raise money to buy other basic household requirements.

“We give each other strength and hope. We are normal human beings.

“Today, I don’t see any difference between being positive or negative though I am aware that I need to be cautious about how I conduct myself.”

While that might have boosted her confidence, Matsebetso claims that the greatest gift that came out of being part of the Red Cross programme was being able to give birth to an HIV negative and health child, currently one year nine months.

“After the death of my first child, I was crushed because I really wanted to be a mother but my HIV sero-status was the major barrier,” she said carrying her baby on her back.

“When they told us during a PMTCT session that it is possible for a HIV positive person to have an HIV negative child, I felt like heaven was opening. I decided to try it and today I am a proud mother of a health baby boy, Adam.

Matsebetso is among the over 20,000 women targeted for mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) services in collaboration with UNICEF in southern Africa. The aim was to improve knowledge of the Red Cross volunteers and communities on PMTCT issues.

Thirty years after the disease’s discovery, the battle is still not won, but there are surely signs that HIV can be tamed even in resource- constrained countries such as Lesotho. Evidence so far in most countries under the International Federation of Red Cross in southern Africa, indicate hope contrary to ten years ago when half of the people in several southern African countries were expected to die of AIDS. Death rates have significantly dropped, slowing down the ever-increasing number of orphaned children.

“After the positive results registered from the five year plan, the International Federation together with the ten national societies in the region are looking forward to implement a new, robust and evidence based five year HIV plan (2011-2015),” announded Samuel Matoka, the HIV and AIDS delegate. The new plan will focus on support to OVC ensuring community resilience by strengthening community systems, provision of adherence, economic and psychosocial support to PLHIV and their families and tackling stigma, discrimination and gender based violence. HIV prevention interventions will be targeted at key populations such as injecting drug users, sex workers, men who have sex with men and mobile populations.