I’ve been hearing about HIV as long as I can remember. Back then, my mindset towards HIV was sublimely unapologetic. The media and people around me demonized it so very much that I was scared to even think about it for a moment. Whatever was told, the reality was much different. Sometimes, I wonder how deceitful it is to listen to one side of a story and not be able to verify but make hasty conclusions.
Ethiopia is one of the countries in the world with a staggering number of HIV-positive people. The number of children who have lost their parents to HIV is also just below a million. HIV has cast its psychosocial and economical burdens for over two decades now. Thanks to a massive awareness campaign and various interventions carried out by the government and NGOs, the statistics are now falling. The stigma and discrimination practiced against HIV-positive citizens has affected the lives of these individuals greatly. Myths about the transmission of HIV and what it does to the body were so widespread and the public was influenced by these myths so much that HIV-positive people were having a hard time adjusting themselves and would suffer a wide range of problems.
Now the public has come to understand that people living with HIV can pretty much lead normal lives if they properly adhere to their medications and practice healthy lifestyles. Despite ongoing efforts, there are still wrong attitudes among some individuals. It is also usual nowadays to see a great number of HIV-positive people speak out and share their experiences. So, this means they have the belief they won’t be alienated by society anymore.
Addis, the capital city where I live, has the most overwhelming numbers of HIV-positive people as compared to the rest of the country. It has a population of about 5 million and every day one million people go in and out of the city. This is actually one of the factors that greatly contributed to the growing HIV epidemic in Addis. Recently though, it has been reported that only 5 out of 100 individuals are infected with the virus while this statistic was about 9 out of 100 not long ago. People are now realizing how serious this is and have started to avoid the risk behaviors that lead to contracting HIV. Equally important is the fact that the public has positively altered its outlook towards HIV-positive people. The “us versus them” attitude is no longer something that I see in my everyday life nor is it something I hear people say.
As someone who is in the medical environment, I have more expert knowledge on HIV from both a public health and a biologic perspective than the average person. I am fortunate enough to closely listen to what HIV-positive people have to say. As doctors, we are not only expected to treat the physical illness but the psychosocial malfunction associated with it. I couldn’t help but understand the pain they suffer as they walk me through their day to day lives. This has greatly helped me understand HIV. My mainstream perception about them is also derived from mass media awareness programs. I especially owe this to a radio program that is aired thrice a week called “Yibekal” literally translated as “It’s enough!” The way the program is put together is what endowed it with the power to change attitudes.
I volunteer in the public health activities of Ethiopian Medical Students’ Association (EMSA). I know the power of changing how people think about a particular situation and the importance of prevention as much as treatment. It has always been said that when we change the way we look at something, it changes. We’re all products of our mindsets. Therefore, the power of awareness-creation can never be underestimated. HIV is not something poor nations can fight only by themselves. When we celebrate this year’s World AIDS Day, we have to keep in mind that the role each of us plays counts and we have to renew our promises to contribute our shares throughout our lives. The HIV pandemic has taken its tolls for the past 30 years and has inflicted more damage in the developing nations than on anyone. I hope December 1 will be the day we vow to fight HIV together as one because this is the only way we can eradicate it from the face of the earth.
This guest post is contributed by Dr. Yelshaday Teklu. He is a General Intern at the Addis Ababa University, School of Medicine. Dr. Yelshaday is SCOPH Publications Head at the Ethiopian Medical Students’ Association and he is SCOPH African Regional Assistant for the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yelshman.