Fida has been battling to erase prejudice against HIV-positive people in East Africa with success.
HIV Infections Decreased by More than a Half
Elsa tells us how this was achieved
When Elsa Alemua started working for Fida’s HIV project in Ethiopia in 2005, HIV was not really talked about. HIV was a dirty and shameful virus. False beliefs were rife, but the enormous shame brought about by an infection with the virus prevented the spread of accurate information.
Alemua was trained as a registered psychiatric nurse. At the start of the project she visited homes of patients with AIDS to help with the chores and to look after their illnesses. The hospitals had no patients for her to care for.
It was because of the shame and the fear of infection that many of the sick were bed-bound at home without proper care or medication.
Alemua remembers one case where the family had isolated their sick daughter in the outhouse. The family was afraid of the infection and the shame associated with the illness.
– Being stigmatised in their community, including the church, was a heavy burden for both the sick and their families, Alemua says.
Prejudice stems from lack of information
HIV is one of the many persisting problems in developing countries, made all the worse by the tightly sitting prejudices.
For years, Fida has been working to erase these prejudices in Ethiopia, East Africa. The results have been encouraging: many people with HIV have acquired a life of dignity instead of fear and shame.
The prejudices associated with HIV infection are mainly due to lack of information. Where there is no accurate information, false and persistent beliefs survive.
For example in East Africa, HIV is often thought to be almost solely the problem of prostitutes and people using intravenous drugs. It is thought to spread almost by itself and to always lead to death.
There is also a strong support for a notion that HIV is God’s punishment for sin.
The prejudices and stigma associated with HIV has even been called the third epidemic of the disease – the first one was the eruption of HIV in Africa, and the second its fast spreading around the world.
Stigma adds to the seriousness of the HIV problem. Fear of the infection becoming public knowledge prevents the sick from seeking treatment and adds to the mental burden of the disease.
For this reason, HIV is also a human rights issue.
Education bears fruit
In addition to nursing, Alemua worked regularly at correcting false information and educating the communities and families of patients with AIDS. Little by little it started to bear fruit.
For example, the family who had isolated their daughter outside the house accepted her back home. Eliminating the shame and stigma enabled the sharing of appropriate help and information. Through this, the number of new infections gradually decreased.
Change was also happening elsewhere in the society. Education about HIV and AIDS was delivered to the church leaders and village communities.
Due to the changes in attitudes, the churches have become important providers of spiritual, psychological and physical support. A church gathering people together is a good place for sharing accurate information.
– Even in the 1990s no one spoke about AIDS here. At the end of that decade and in the early years of the next, a huge number of people died of AIDS, and it was only then that people started to pay attention to it, explains Anu Heikkilä, who has been working in Fida’s HIV project in Ethiopia.
Need for home visits decreased
Fida also provided financial support for those needing medication and treatment, as well as those orphaned by AIDS. The medication helped many of the sick to improve and gain enough strength to start earning their living.
Support groups were also established through the project to improve the status of the poorest of the poor.
Fida had a clear goal for its work: to decrease the number of HIV infections and support those suffering because of HIV. Through this work, the number of infections decreased and as the prejudices and false beliefs were erased, the living conditions of the sick improved.
– The encouragement the sick received from the project helped them to try again to continue their normal lives. Gradually the number of bed-bound patients decreased to the degree that the need for home visits was much less than in the early days of the project, Anu Heikkilä rejoices.