Killing the myth…before the myth kills you

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This statement is raising many eyebrows, I’m sure, but sometimes it is necessary to talk loud and clear about what has been whispered for too long. Sexually transmitted diseases is something we all know about, but we prefer to keep it hush-hush. Pretending as these diseases don’t exist doesn’t help us to prevent them, and we must take it seriously as many of the diseases can be fatal. Too many times we only hear bad news from Africa, but the other day I heard some great news about Botswana and I wanted to share them with you.

Botswana has been one of the African countries that has been battling with HIV for many years, and too many have been affected. The disease was transmitted from mother to child, through the blood and also breast feeding. We are not speaking about promiscuous mothers, most of them have been infected by their husbands. The Government of Botswana decided in 2013 to battle HIV through information campaigns, testing and continous treating and are now on a level of less than 2% infected, compared to 30 % before the campaign started.

Botswana has become the first high-burden country to be certified for achieving an important milestone on the path to eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV by the World Health Organization (WHO).

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”This is a huge accomplishment for a country that has one of the most severe HIV epidemics in the world – Botswana demonstrates that an AIDS-free generation is possible,” says Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “This groundbreaking milestone is a big step forward in ending AIDS on the continent and shows how visionary political leadership aligned with public health priorities can save lives.

Globally, 15 countries have been certified for eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission. None of them had an epidemic as large as Botswana.

”Botswana’s pathfinding accomplishment demonstrates the remarkable progress that can be achieved when the needs of mothers living with HIV and their children are prioritized,” says Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS Executive Director.

Political commitment, strong leadership and the hard work of dedicated health care workers and communities in Botswana have delivered impressive results.”

HIV is a tricky disease, as it has many of the same symptoms as other diseases – in the beginning. You can get nausea, diarrhea, headache, a sore throat or red rashes on your abdomen. You might not think anything of it as some of these symptoms are the same as when you have got a cold. If your symptoms don’t leave you, and they are not checked and treated, they can evolve to the next level. Your immunity system becomes weakened, which can take several years. You get so used to it, and don’t think much about it. I mean; who is not tired and get a headache from time to time?

When your immunity system is weakened you begin to feel fatigue, you get night fever, scaly excema on your face or fungus in your mouth. This last symptom is giving you a smelly, bad tasting layer on the tongue. When the immunity system becomes even weaker a fatal disease called AIDS can develop. HIV can be controlled by testing and medication, but if your body’s immunity system is too weak you will get AIDS and then it is bye, bye.

AIDS is not a sickness in itself, it is an abbreviation of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. As the immunity system is so weak, you are vulnerable to get tuberculosis, cancer or hepatitis B or C which are diseases that are affecting your blood.

Women living with HIV who do not receive antiretroviral (ARV) medicine have a 15–45% chance of transmitting the virus to their children during pregnancy, labour, delivery or breastfeeding. That risk drops to less than 5% if treatment is given to both mothers and children throughout the stages when transmission can occur.

Despite the existence of HIV since March 1986, many people living with the Virus have been affected and some have undergone some stigma and discrimination.

In The Gambia, it is estimated that 24,000 people are living with HIV (2020), and only 13, 692 (51%) know their HIV status.

Currently, people tend to forget about the virus due to the increase in Covid-19 cases and its new variants.

Stigma remains the biggest challenge for the HIV programme. People need to know their status through testing but because of the stigma and discrimination within the community they are afraid of HIV test.

The fact remains that HIV can also expose oneself by weakening the immune system and giving advantage to infections like TB, pneumonia, and diarrhea that can kill.

The stigma is one side of the problem, the other side is that even if people are not supposed to have sex before marriage, this still exists. Because of this fact people hesitate to search for help when they suspect they have become infected because they are afraid of how they will be received by the healthcare personell. A person who is already vulnerable will feel even worse when he or she will be met by unprofessional remarks and/or looks. The staff at cliniques and hospitals must learn to receive the patients in a professional manner, no matter their own personal opinions about the issue.

So what has all of this to do with killing myths before they kill you? If we look at the cases of HIV in South Africa, many men believe they can be cured from HIV . The cure is unfortunately not medication, no, the cure is to have sex with virgins, even babies. This is almost too cruel to talk about, but we must talk about it because this is truly a myth that kills. We must educate people about sexually transmitted diseases so they will know how to protect themselves and others. Pretending as this doesn’t exist doesn’t make it stop, only education and medication can make an end to all the unnecessary suffering.

In Malawi there is a strange custom where young girls are initiated into adult life and that rite ends with a certain man having sex with them in educational purpose. This man, called the ”hyena” is paid by the girl’s parents. When the girls are going through these rites, they are taught how to become good wives. That could be enough, one might think, but this strange custom ends with an act none of the girls goes through volontarily. They simply don’t have any choice, as this is an old custom, just like FGM, and the girls are considered as indecent if they disagree to be with the hyena. He can keep them for a whole week, and one of the hyenas I read about told that he was very satisfied with his services.

There was no question in his mind if the girls enjoyed it. The worst part in this story is that this man is infected by HIV. He knew if, but never told that to anyone. Young and vulnerable girls are the easiest victims for sexually transmitted diseases. They are not taught how to protect themselves and they don’t have the authority to tell their husbands, who are often much older than themselves, to use protection or be tested and treated. We think innocence is the best protection for our girls, but this myth is actually killing them. Let us kill these myths instead!