The recent disclosure by the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) that 3.4 million Nigerians are living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) has underscored the need to strengthen the fight against the pandemic. The agency’s Director-General, Prof. John Idoko, who stated this at a recent Senate public hearing on a bill to prohibit discrimination against persons living with HIV/AIDS, also explained that with this figure, Nigeria had the second largest global HIV burden.
The NACA DG noted that while the national prevalence had stabilized at about four percent, 13 states of the federation still carry higher burden of the debilitating health condition. Having stated, also, that the country is behind target in several important indicators, he explained that only one out of every three people in need of HIV drugs is currently receiving treatment. Only 18 percent of HIV positive women, he added, received prophylaxis against mother-to-child transmission of the disease, while more than 40 percent of HIV-positive persons do not know their status.
While declaring open the public hearing, the Senate President, David Mark, represented by the Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Abdul Ningi, called for an end to stigmatization and discrimination against persons living with HIV. He stressed that citizens should be educated more about the virus. Ningi also lamented that many HIV-positive people were afraid to go for tests or access necessary treatment because of negative societal behaviour. Also, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, observed that the HIV pandemic poses a big challenge to health and development across the world. He noted that “in the countries that are worst affected, including Nigeria, the impact of HIV/AIDS has eroded decades of developmental goals and gains, stultifying economies and destabilizing societies.”
It is good that NACA has disclosed the scope of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the country. The news that Nigeria is behind target in several important indicators, and has the second highest HIV burden in the world, is sad. Let NACA and its sister agencies at state and local government levels evolve strategies to curb the spread of the virus, especially as it affects mother-to-child transmission. Every effort should be geared towards mitigating the impact of the disease and its prevention among the vulnerable groups. Political leaders should be part of the effort to step up the fight against AIDS. Development partners and aids agencies should ensure that all monies budgeted for the disease are judiciously utilised for the benefit of the target group. Diversion of AIDS funds to other uses in developing countries has been fingered as one of the major causes of the continued spread of the virus in sub-Saharan African countries, including Nigeria. All hands must be on deck to check such fund leakages so that the fight against HIV can be given the seriousness it deserves. Currently, 1.5 million people living with HIV in Nigeria require anti-retroviral (ARVs) drugs using the new World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. But, only 30 percent of people living with HIV who need the drugs have access to it, while less that 30 percent of pregnant women have access to Prevention of Mother-To-Child Transmission (PMTCT) services.
Current global statistics show that HIV is the leading cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age (15-49 years). And, in sub-Saharan African countries, 60 percent of the people living with HIV are female while women make up 50 percent of the global epidemic. In Nigeria, prevalence among young women aged 15-24 years is estimated to be three times higher than among men of the same age.
These worrisome statistics call for critical interventions that recognise not only the scope of the problem, but the gender disparity in the nation’s HIV burden.