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New Vision
Uganda: Remembering Those Killed By HIV/AIDS (International AIDS Candlelight Memorial)

<p>Carol Natukunda</p>

May 20, 2013

In the late 1980s, the HIV prevalence rate was 18%. It reduced to 6.2%, but has risen again to 7.3%, which is worrying policy makers and healthcare givers.

Lutaaya has AIDS", read New Vision front page headline a day after musician Philly Bongole Lutaaya publicly announced that he had "slim." This was in 1989 when stigma about HIV/AIDS was at its peak in Uganda.

Lutaaya went around the country raising awareness. He composed a song "Alone and Frightened," whose message was calling upon Ugandans to stand up and fight the epidemic.

It is for people like Lutaaya that Uganda joins the rest of the world today to mark the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial. The event is much more than just a memorial.

It is a platform for everyone committed to ending HIV by raising awareness. Under the theme "In Solidarity," grass root organisations worldwide commemorate the day by standing together with people living with HIV and remember the loved ones lost to HIV/AIDS.

Lutaaya's physical appearance is still fresh in many people's memories. Looking frail and exhausted, Lutaaya's story made people shed tears wherever he went. There was fear everywhere. People discovered what had been killing people in Rakai at an alarming rate in the early and mid 1980s.

The HIV prevalence rate was as high as 18%. Lutaaya's message was a wake-up call. Ugandans, civil societies and the Government got together in solidarity to fight and live responsibly. The Government adopted the ABC approach - Abstain, Be mutually faithful to your partner, or use a Condom.

By 2000, the HIV prevalence rate had dropped tremendously. The prevalence declined from about 18% in 1992 to 6.2% in 2002. Uganda was the first developing country to bring down HIV prevalence. However, in 2005, it rose slightly to 6.8% and stagnated for about three years until 2011, when it rose again.

Today, the HIV prevalence is at 7.3%. According to the Uganda AIDS Indicator Survey, released by health minister Dr. Christine Ondoa in June 2012, about 130,000 people get infected with HIV each year.

According to a joint statement by The AIDS Support Organisation (TASO) and other civil society organisations, Uganda was lauded as a global HIV success story due to pronounced declines in HIV prevalence.

Some experts believe this decline was due to successful HIV prevention efforts. Others argue that widespread AIDS deaths were probably the main cause of infection reductions. Alarmingly, those declines, no matter the cause, appear to be a thing of the past.

These disturbing trends signal serious shortcomings in the national response to HIV. Some people are blaming complacency among Ugandans.

They argue that anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs) has made people less worried about HIV. Prof. Vinand Nantulya, the chairman of the Uganda AIDS Commission(UAC) observes: "With ARVs, people no longer take HIV/AIDS as a death sentence.

People say, "Oh, well, we shall all die, so why bother?" However, what is attestable is that Uganda still remains a success story. The prevalence is lower than it was in the 1990s.

The ARV programme is one of the best in Africa in terms of numbers of people treated, as well as the quality care they receive. Currently, nearly half of the 500,000 Ugandans who need ARVs are receiving them free of charge.

New research shows that earlier treatment results in 96% reduction in the risk of HIV transmission through sex, is highly cost effective and provides significant clinical benefit.