By Pa Nderry M’Bai

Banjul, The Gambia: HIV/Aids is ravaging the impoverished West African country the Gambia. Close to 30,000 Gambians are living with HIV, the virus that causes aids, latest medical findings revealed. With a population of less than 3 million people, the former British colony is faced by an unprecedented aids crisis. Women accounts for the greater number of those infected. Men folks are also badly devastated by the global pandemic.

A statement issued by the advert.org says in 2005, alone 20,000 Gambians were diagnosed with HIV. Out of this figure, 11,000 were women, while 1,200 children were hit by the disease. Over 1,300 Gambians have so far died from aids. But the said figure has dramatically changed in view of the growing aids related death cases recorded in recent times. The nation’s aids orphanage rate has been estimated to be at 3,800. Most of these kids have lost their parents.

The epidemic was first discovered in the Gambia in May of 1986. Since then the country had witnessed a dramatic increase on its HIV infection rate. The World Bank and other donor communities have extended financial help to the government to tackle the disease, but it appears that much achievements had not been made in improving the people’s awareness on the dreadful disease. The country is said to be faced with high cases of sexually transmitted diseases known as STDS. Doctors blamed the trend to ignorance and lack of safe sex practices. Aids researchers in a finding released say most of the country’s youth population are engaged in risky behaviors, thus making them more vulnerable to HIV. Lack of voluntary HIV test, has also been attributable to the spread of the disease which is growing at an alarming rate.

The World Bank and other donor agencies should closely monitor funds provided to the Gambia to fight aids. The funds should serve its purpose. There is no point  in pumping millions of dollars to fight aids when no significant development has been achieved. The country should draw lessons from neighboring Senegal, where a success story had been recorded in terms of keeping HIV infection rate low. Senegal is among of the African countries praised for its dedication in tackling aids.

The Gambia is a secular state, with Muslims forming the biggest population. Many communities practiced polygamous marriage system. There is no law put in place to bare men from marrying more than one wife. Some marry as many as five wives. This to some extent compounded the aids crisis, as couples hardly undergo pre-HIV test before getting married.The government over the years encouraged couples to do such tests before getting married, but few people are responding to their call.

Beside, polygamous marriages, cultural and traditional practices such as Female Genital Mutilation FGM are also aggravating the country’s aids crisis. Dozens of  female kids are usually circumcised with one razor blade. The practice don’t meet health standards, as the equipments used for the circumcision are never sterilized. Their chances of attracting HIV, in such practices is very likely. In some instances, newly born babies are also exposed to the practice. Some kids reportedly died as a result of the cuts they were exposed to.

Those engaged in FGM said they are doing it for religious, cultural and traditional reasons. For instance, they said an uncircumcised kid is vulnerable to pregnancy and hardly respects her elders. In some communities, where the practice is observed some circumcised kids had their genitals sealed. This they say would prevent the girls from being impregnated. These kids are not only exposed to HIV, but also mental trauma. Kids who mistakenly ran into circumcision grounds are held under hostage and forcefully circumcised. Most of the criminal cases brought against the culprits were  dismissed by the courts. Pro-FGM campaigners usually stormed court premises demanding for the accused persons to be discharged. For example, a Wolof girl who was forcefully circumcised in Tanjai had her case dismissed by the sacked magistrate King. King refuses to entertain the case citing traditional practices a ground for the dismissal of the case.

The President to some extent, contributed to the problem. He at some point issued a decree banning anti FGM campaigners from using state radio and television to sell their messages across. The President was quoted as saying that communities who want  to practice FGM were free to do so and would not entertain anti FGM campaigners trading attacks against those engaged in the practice. The President belongs to a Jolla tribe that is reputed to be  FGM practitioners. He is criticized in some quarters for his non commitment to tackle FGM. UNICEF and other child right advocates have condemned such practices. They say it undermines the right of the girl child.

The government has created a National Aids Secretariat under the President’s office, whose main preoccupation is to fight HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases. With all the structures put in place to tackle the disease, the Gambia is still witnessing a steady increase on aids related cases. There are also good number of under reported cases of HIV. Most of the research findings released were done at hospital levels. The government and the UK Research Scientific Firm, the Medical Research Council (MRC) jointly conducted an HIV sentinel research program, in which they targeted pregnant women. The HIV tests were conducted at random. It is gathered that the patients tested were informed about the said secret HIV test. The government was criticized in some quarters for invading the privacies of the women, even though that it was intended to measure the country’s aids statistic rate.

Already, a group called the Santayalla Society known as “Gambian Living With HIV/Aids” are helping the government to fight the disease. Close to 500 HIV patients have enrolled into  the said organization. The group promotes “attitudinal change towards the disease and positive living.”  It’s leader is Lamin Ceesay. Mr.Ceesay recounted in an interview with this reporter  in earlier interview how he attracted the disease. The said interview was broadcast on the Voice Of America Radio (VOA) while Mr.M’Bai served as their Banjul Correspondent. Ceesay said he was first diagnosed with the disease while he was in Cameroon. Ceesay says he was devastated by the medical report considering the deadliness of HIV. Prior to doing the test Ceesay said he experienced unstable health history during the period in question. On his return to the Gambia, he repeated the test but was still diagnosed positive. While admitting that he was engaged in risky behaviors while overseas, the former cap driver is today playing an active role in the nation’s aids awareness campaign.

Ceesay and his group are being used as peer educators in schools and other social gatherings in that impoverished West African country. They also took part in regional and international aids conferences. Some “Santayalla Group” members said due to lack of balance diet, support and care some of their members are dying.The group also lamented about discrimination. Some families often reject their loved ones living with the disease.

In a bid to help prolong the lives of the HIV patients, the government has provided them with an anti retroviral drugs. The drugs are not meant for cure, but to help prolong the lives of the aids patients. Due to the expensive nature of the drugs, many African governments found  it difficult to provide it for its nationals.

Few years ago, the President announced that HIV patients should not be discriminated or sacked because of their status. But HIV patients said they are still being discriminated in some communities. Due to ignorance, many believe that by eating with those infected they are poised to catch the disease. Some even refrained from touching or seating with them.

Gambia’s aids crisis should be of concern to all an sundry. Aids is beyond politics. It should be every body’s business. Our country would soon be reduced to a nation of an HIV orphans if concerted efforts are not made to tackle disease. The government must demonstrate political will to fight disease. Mere talks cannot  save our nation. We would not advocate for mandatory HIV test, but would recommend for voluntary testing. The Jammeh leadership should be bold enough to introduce voluntary cabinet HIV test and government Departments. Such a move would go a long way in encouraging other communities to follow suit. Together, we can fight aids. Lets kick aids out of the Gambia. The said piece can be read at this link:www.freedomnewspaper.com

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