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HIV Test: President Leads by Example

A Statement by Professor Vinand M. Nantulya, Chairman, the Uganda AIDS Commission

Last Friday, His Excellency the President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, publicly tested for HIV.  By this action His Excellency the President wanted to lead by example and demonstrate to all Ugandans the importance of knowing your HIV status. Today few Ugandans know their HIV status. Yet the test is important as it serves as a pointer to the services you can get. If you test negative, and the great majority of Ugandans are, you will be given the necessary information, advice and services to enable you to remain negative. But most important is that it is your personal responsibility to take care in your sexual behaviour to avoid risk of HIV infection. If you test positive, Government and partners will put you on anti-retroviral treatment for free. So do not hide your head in the sand. Come forward and take the test. It is in your own interest.

Moreover, if you learn early that you are HIV positive, you will receive early the necessary care and treatment to enable you to live quality life. Early treatment will suppress the viral load in your blood and restore your health. Furthermore, any pregnant woman who tests HIV positive early will be given treatment and assisted to deliver an HIV-free baby. The challenge to the father of the baby is that you, too, should take the test because your baby needs you to be alive to bring him/her up. So you must support your wife. For couples who are discordant, meaning one is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative, the negative partner will be assisted to remain negative, while the one who is positive will be placed on treatment without waiting for the CD4 cell count to go down.

Some good news: over the past year, government has continued to intensify its efforts to fight the HIV epidemic. As a result we are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. For example in 2012 it was estimated that the number of new infections reduced by about 13 percent to 140,000 compared to the 160,000 new infections in 2011.

Furthermore, one of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals is to enrol into anti-retroviral treatment 80 percent of the patients that need treatment by 2015. Uganda has so far enrolled 577,000 people on treatment, representing 77 percent.  Government will achieve and exceed this goal in the remaining two years given that it plans to enrol 240,000 patients on antiretroviral treatment in 2014 alone.

Moreover, Uganda has put more people on HIV treatment in 2013 than those who acquired HIV in the same period. In 2013 we have been able to enrol into treatment 193,000 patients compared to the 140, 000 new infections in this same time period.  In public health we refer to this trend as a “tipping point” and clearly if we continue in this direction, we shall succeed in containing this epidemic. The more HIV-positive people we put on treatment the more we shall suppress the viral load circulating in the community and thereby protect more people from getting infected.

Another major source of new infections is the transmission of HIV from mother to her unborn child. Significant progress was made in putting 96 percent of the estimated 100,000 HIV positive pregnant women on free ARVs in 2013. This resulted in the reduction of the number of babies born with HIV infections from 28,000 in 2011 to 15,000 in 2013.  This, too, is very good news, and tribute goes to the First Lady, Mama Janet Museveni, for  championing a nation-wide campaign to have no baby born with HIV. Three campaigns have been held in four regions and more planned for the coming year. Currently the focus is on Kampala, spearheaded by the Office of the First Lady, the Ministry of Health, the Uganda AIDS Commission and Kampala Capital City Authority. I urge Kampala residents to respond to this campaign and go for free HIV services.

The government through the Uganda AIDS Commission has developed new HIV prevention message concepts to guide the country in social mobilization which has been disseminated throughout the country. Already being rolled out, region by region, is a pastoral letter carrying messages on HIV prevention, signed by all the top religious leaders. This letter is to be read to followers in all mosques and churches every week for a period on one year in order to reduce the spread of HIV. Parliament, cultural leaders and local government leaders are already sensitized to the prevention messages they, too, are already rolling out the messages in their respective constituencies.

The President has done his bit.  Now the ball is in your court as an individual.

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