By Aroki Jallow

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am very grateful for allowing me space in your widely read online news paper to share my view regarding the above article posted December 25th, 2006. I wish to thank the writer of this piece for bringing to light the issue of HIV among Officials in the Gambia and possible opening up a debate on the issue of Voluntary Counselling & Testing (VCT) and the importance of knowing one’s HIV status. However, I beg to disagree with some of the views expressed in the write-up. Example 1: “…. The Government’s Aids testing centre, the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital also never bothered to invite the officer for an HIV test………..” On this issue, i wish to point out that the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital (RVTH) cannot be held responsible in anyway for not inviting the said officer or any other person for that matter to come forward to test for HIV.

Testing for HIV is voluntary and it is left to the individual whether or not they want to be tested to know their status. The mere fact that the officer’s wife died of AIDS related illness does not automatically give the RVTH the right to test him for HIV since its the said officer’s right to choose whether or not to test for HIV. Even if the RVTH invited the officer to come for a test he can exercise his right to decline to be tested and the RVTH has to respect his decision. As the writer rightly states, there still exists stigma and an hostile environment in the country geared towards People Living With HIV AIDS (PLWHAs) thus, people need to be able to adequately and appropriately deal with the effects of stigma (including the possibility of isolation & rejection) on their life and family following a positive test before considering or consenting to HIV test. Example 2: “…….. There are instances where Mrs. X is diagnosed with HIV and the husband is never informed about it. …………..To some extent, our health workers also contribute to the spread of HIV in the country…..”

As a trained and registered Gambian Nurse who spent nearly 10 years working in the area of  Sexual and Reproductive health including sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, I find the last statement to be baseless since it has not been supported by factual evidence. Infact the contrary is true in the case of efforts to tackle HIV/AIDS in the Gambia. The following agencies/organizations can be contacted for information regarding the work health workers are doing throughout the country to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Dept of State for Health National AIDS Control Programme Medical Research Council (MRC) Fajara, Keneba, Farafeni & Basse National AIDS Secretariat (NAS) Gambia Family Planning Association Hands-on Care Programme, Reproductive Health Clinic in Kanifing, Gambia Social Marketing Programme (GSMP), and New World for Youth Centre (NEWFOY) in Bundung Bantaba WEC Mission in Sibanor BAFROW in Tobacco Road, Banjul GAMCOTRAP in Bakau New Town

Furthermore, I would like to stress that whether it’s the wife or husband who was first diagnosed to have HIV, the decision to disclose such information to the spouse, partner or family lies wholly on the individual and whatever their decision we as health workers are bound to respect this but at the same time we also provide further support and counselling for those persons who wish to disclose their status to their partner/spouse/family.

I have personally witnessed instances where PLWHAs who disclosed their HIV status received a negative and hostile reception but it is with the help and support of health workers working with them that they (PLWHAs) were able to cope and adapt to the situation whilst relentlessly working to change such negative attitudes and behaviour towards them. I am pleased to note that the Late Lamin Ceesay (RIP) was among the people who laid the foundation for PLWHAs to come forward and disclose their HIV status in aid of our untiring battle to tackle the stigma and discrimination faced by PLWHAs.

I wish to register my respect for all these persons for their courageous actions. I hope he would be remembered for his contribution in bringing to light the difficulties, discrimination and stigma faced by PLWHAs. In order to encourage and nurture a conducive environment where all of us will have the courage to test for HIV, we – individually and collectively – have to work towards changing attitudes and behaviour regarding HIV/AIDS. I have to say I find that sometimes inadvertently, what we say or do either consciously or subconsciously actually fuels and strengthens the stigma and hostile environment surrounding HIV/AIDS and the subsequent difficulty we all face in deciding whether or not to do the test.

I would suggest we start by doing the test ourselves first and go through the multitude of emotions, feelings and difficult decision-making one goes through during the testing process to enable us to understand, appreciate and hopefully emphasize with the said Officer and all other persons who have to constantly deal with such issues in their daily lives. Finally, I would like to kindly remind the writer that PLWHAs are not “patients” as in sick people because most of them are fit and lead normal and fulfilling lives as much as possible albeit in a very challenging environment. I encourage and urge people to address these persons correctly as PLWHAs. Thank you and very best wishes for the New Year. Keep up the Good Work!

Posted on Thursday, December 28, 2006 (Archive on Sunday, January 21, 2007)
Posted by PNMBAI  Contributed by PNMBAI

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