Apart from being an indictment of the country’s already discredited health care delivery system, the recent disclosure that Nigeria has lost ground in the handling of the HIV/AIDS treatment should be a compelling reason for a radical review of the current efforts to contain the deadly disease. This has become imperative, if the country’s health authorities are genuinely interested in arresting the rapid spread of the disease, which is witnessing a decline in some other parts of the world.
Experts who met at the American Conference on the Treatment of HIV held in Denver, Colorado in the United States, last month, came up with the damning verdict that the HIV/AIDS situation in Nigeria had worsened. Their assessment was that infection rate had been on the rise just because the country was no longer taking reasonable precautions to protect the vulnerable members of the society against the spread of the disease and the inevitable consequence, which is a high mortality rate.
According to Margaret Lampe of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria increased by almost 500,000 in three years, while the number of AIDS-related deaths also witnessed a marginal rise to 217,148 within the same period. Of particular interest to Jean Anderson of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute, Maryland, was the high rate of infection through blood transfusion and mother-to-child transmission, despite the fact that such forms of transmission are easily preventable.
A United Nations report last year had also described Nigeria as the country with the highest number of children living with the virus in the world. The report said in part, “Nigeria has the largest number of children acquiring HIV infection, nearly 60,000 in 2012 — a number that has remained unchanged since 2009.”
The Denver verdict is a setback for Nigeria, which had previously recorded a decline in the rate of HIV/AIDS infection. Figures released by the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research during the 2012 World AIDS Day showed that Nigeria was among the 12 countries worldwide that recorded a 20 per cent reduction in the rate of new infections.
This was due, in the main, to sustained efforts by the National Agency for the Control of AIDS and the numerous non-governmental agencies that are involved in awareness programmes about the dangers posed by the disease and how to prevent new infections. The role of funding from donor agencies can also not be overemphasised. For instance, the Global Fund, an international financial institution dedicated to attracting and disbursing resources for the treatment of HIV/AIDS and other diseases — among other donor agencies — has reportedly parted with $1.5 billion in the course of fighting diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, in Nigeria.
HIV is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus from which it derives its name. Although HIV/AIDS, which, according to the World Health Organisation, has claimed more than 36 million lives, is believed to be without cure, it is however possible to manage it in such a way that a patient can live an almost normal and fulfilled life. The availability of antiretroviral drugs has reduced what, upon infection, was initially thought to be a death sentence into just another incurable illness that, with good management, does not automatically lead to death.
WHO figures put the number of people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide at between 32 million and 38 million, as of September last year. Unfortunately, Nigeria, with about 3 million infected persons, has the highest prevalence rate of the disease after South Africa. It is believed that between 50,000 and 100,000 children are born annually with HIV in Nigeria.
The main challenge facing those living with the infection has been that of access to treatment. Even globally, only 9.7 million people were said to have access to ART drugs last year out of the 32 to 38 million people living with the virus.
It is indeed an indictment of the government at various levels that many children are still born with HIV when medical breakthroughs have ensured a safe delivery without an infected mother passing on the virus to the child. It is also sad that many people do not have access to ART drugs despite efforts globally to make them available at a cheap rate.
That Nigeria is losing ground in treatment should not come totally as a surprise, given the fact that a company was reported earlier in the year to have been allowed to produce ART drugs without meeting the usual pre-qualification specifications of WHO. The Coordinator of the Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, Edward Ogenyi, was forced to cry out when some of the patients took the drugs and died. It actually took a protest by NEWPHAN members at the International Conference for AIDS in South Africa for the Nigerian authorities to react to the issue. Even then, there has not been an official report yet, stating who gave approval for the said company to start producing the Tyonex Anti-Retroviraldrug.
The UN report had warned that Nigeria would not reach the Millennium Development Goal target of eliminating HIV in children and keeping their mothers safe by 2015 because the “…government is not serious in curbing HIV in children…”
While the various reports may be rightly termed an embarrassment, it should also be a wake-up call for a serious government to take action. There must be a renewed effort at enlightening people about the dangers of unprotected sex and having multiple sex partners. People should also be advised against sharing sharp objects such as hypodermic syringes, blades and clippers.
Above all, the government must subsidise and ensure the availability of antiretroviral drugs for all patients. Like all other serious and committed countries, Nigeria has no choice but to take appropriate measures to reduce HIV infection rates amongst her citizens.