Ambassador of the United States of America to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard has commended Nigeria’s efforts in the war against HIV/AIDS, saying her home country has invested $7.8bn in the fight against the disease in Nigeria.
Leonard who played host to stakeholders in the HIV/AIDS sector in a lunch at her Lagos residence to commemorate the World’s AIDS Day 2022, also relayed the efforts of the United States of America in building Nigeria’s capacity to sustain the fight against the disease.
Commending Nigeria’s efforts, Leonard said, “Nigeria’s position as a regional leader in HIV/AIDS programming is possible because of your trust in the power of partnerships, your collective willingness to listen to beneficiaries, and your meaningful engagement with civil society.”
Commending the Nigerian government further, she said, “We commend the Government of Nigeria, especially Lagos State officials represented here today, for your steadfast leadership and our implementing partners who continue to innovate and apply new scientific advances.”
Stating the involvement of her country in the fight against the disease, she said, “The U.S. government has invested over $7.8 billion in Nigeria through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), to ensure that all Nigerians living with HIV/AIDS have comprehensive access to quality HIV prevention, care, and treatment services.
“This investment translates into over 1.9 million Nigerians accessing antiretroviral treatment (ART). Today, Nigeria is on the cusp of HIV epidemic control and is approaching the global 95-95-95 goals, which means that 95 percent of people with HIV know their HIV status, 95 percent of those with diagnosed HIV infection are accessing ART, and 95 percent of those receiving ART have achieved an undetectable viral load,” she said.
Talking about the theme for the 2022 celebration, she said, “The U.S. government’s theme for World AIDS Day this year is, ‘Putting Ourselves to the Test: Achieving Equity to End HIV.’ When I reflect upon how this theme applies to Nigeria, I believe the over 1.9 million lives saved today is a tangible reminder of our enduring commitment to reach disproportionately affected, and often marginalized, communities.
The Ambassador however challenged all in attendance to think about what it will take to achieve full equity in access to HIV services in Nigeria.
“Nigeria’s ability to reach and sustain HIV epidemic control will be compromised if we remain silent to the real issues faced not only by key populations, but also adolescent girls, young people, and communities that are isolated from quality health care services due to geography or insecurity,” she said.
According to her, 6,309 positive pregnant women have been identified. “This year PEPFAR identified and initiated 6,309 HIV positive pregnant women on ART. Unfortunately, we also screened and identified 335 HIV exposed infants who tested positive.
“There is nothing more heartbreaking than meeting a child born with HIV. We have long had the tools to prevent mother to child transmission and we cannot allow ourselves to accept children born today with HIV,” she said.
Also at the event, Professor Sulaimon Akanni Akanmu appreciated the PEPFAR that has made significant efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Nigeria.
“We appreciate the PEPFAR program for allowing Nigeria to be on the track towards achieving the goal of ending the epidemic in Nigeria by year 2030,” he said.
Going down memory lane, Akanmu remembered how response to HIV was in 1986 and noted the significant improvement in the treatment protocol of today.
“What we now know today as antiretroviral therapy was brought to our country in 2003 and I happened to be one of the first set of people that participated. We were in Harvard for a 27 days training on antiretroviral therapy.
“Since 2003, the HIV intervention took turn for the better because of the brain wave of one American President called George Bush who said ‘I have decided, I want to treat a number of HIV/AIDS patients in Africa and the Caribbean.
“Nigeria was not on his list except for the goodwill of one Nigerian President called Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo, who picked up his phone and said Mr. President, please include Nigeria in that your PEPFAR program. Since that time, Nigeria has benefited greatly,” he said.
Akanmu who said he was among the first beneficiaries of PEPFAR, also told the participants that, “What the PEPFAR program has done is to produce people like me who has been providing quality antiretroviral services for Nigeria.
“Also, human resources are big investments of the PEPFAR program in our country and second to that is our laboratory infrastructure development. We now have very robust highly intellectual people that are managing the laboratory services in our country and I can continue to tell you that if PEPFAR was not there, we would still have been practicing HIV routine the way we were doing in 1986,” he said.
According to him because of the intervention of PEPFAR, Nigeria now has a robust data and at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital. He said between 2004 and now, over 22,000 patients have been enrolled in the database.
Chief Executive Officer of the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency (LSACA), Dr. Monsurat Adeleke at the event said the World Aids Day celebration is the celebration of a success story.
“We are celebrating the success story, because the disease is no longer a death sentence,” she said.
Continuing, she said, “Every year the budgetary allocation to HIV response has made a massive impact. We have partnerships, we have tried to strengthen a lot of health institutions, we are into health, we are into agriculture, we are into the education sector, we have helped almost all of our implementing partners, we have so many of them, we have a lot of private sector players and CSOs in our network and we are trying our best to address the inequalities.”
Talking about discrimination faced by patients, she said, “We must ensure that this stigma and discrimination must be reduced to the barest minimum, we are training and retraining so that everybody will be comfortable and so that we maintain epidemic control by 2025 and we also end the transmission of HIV virus.
“That is why we are standing with those living with HIV and to remember those we have lost, the Lagos State government is also indemnifying with those living with HIV, ensuring them it is not the end of the world. We empower them with grinding machines and hair driers, we do yearly just to make sure they are financially independent.
“On sustainability, we know that there is global recession, the United States has been supporting us all these years and we are looking in terms of suitability. So with the budgetary allocation the Lagos State government has been doing from 2020 and 2021, we know that it will be sustainable,” she assured.
Adewale Ayomide Itunu is a young lady living with HIV who also addressed the audience at the event.
Living with HIV since birth, she said has overcome the issues thrown at her after discovering her status.
According to her, “Instead of blaming someone on how I got infected, I have learnt to do things for myself. My dad was positive and he didn’t reveal to my mum. I am the last child and I got infected through mother to child.”
She recounted her ordeal and how difficult it was with her family after losing their bread winner. “Ever since then it has been a struggle, the family had to send us away from the home saying my mum was the cause of my dad’s death.
“I was taken for a test at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), and that was where I knew I was positive. Then there was no much education about it, it was during the time that they said if you touched a positive person, you would die. It was difficult. It was something I had to accept.”
Narrating her ordeal further, she said, “It made me to adapt in any situation. I had to make use of anything I have. We spent nine years outside the home, struggling. There were times there would be no food, nobody would know we had no food, we lived in a church. I couldn’t express myself to anybody, I became suppressed. I wanted to be an ambassador; I think I am one now. I have never limited myself. I became stronger, I told myself I have my eyes, my hands, my legs, so what is it?
“I attended the public school, I don’t rely on people, I started making money by writing notes. I mingled with people of same caliber, I got notes to write and I got paid. I am skilled right now. I am a fashion designer; I made the dress I’m wearing and I am tech wise too. Thanks to everybody who has supported me,” she appreciated.
A Peer Educator, HIV Counselor and Outreach Coordinator with KP CARE! Project in Lagos supported by PEPFAR/USAID, Nwaneri Augustina, at the event, also made a presentation.
The former brothel-based female sex worker has since moved on from being a sex worker and has enrolled in classes, now championing HIV prevention services among female sex workers.
*Story by Dayo Emmanuel