THE report that the Federal Government has outlined a new emergency plan to tackle the ravaging Human Immunodeficiency Virus infection at a cost of N179 billion between 2013 and 2015 is reassuring in view of the latest scary statistics on HIV/AIDS by the United Nations. According to a report by the UN Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS, Nigeria, with 60,000 new cases among its newborn children, accounts for “one third of all new infections in 21 priority countries in sub-Saharan Africa.” This report, which adds to other ignoble records, like the one that identified Nigeria as having the highest number (10.5m) of out-of-school children in the world, is distressing.
The ball is now in the court of the federal, state and local government authorities to address this serious health challenge. The UN report said, “Nearly all indicators assessed show stagnation and suggest that Nigeria is facing significant hurdles. Meeting the 2015 targets requires massive effort. Progress here (Nigeria) is therefore critical to eliminating new HIV infections among children globally.” This is a serious indictment of our system, especially for a health issue that is preventable if the right measures are taken.
While some African countries are witnessing a reduction in the prevalence of new HIV infections among children, Nigeria, the most populous and one of the richest on the continent, is stagnating due to corruption and complacency in tackling health issues. Although the country made progress some years ago, today, “eight out of 10 pregnant women living with HIV do not have access to antiretroviral therapy for their own health,” according to UNAIDS. This is one of the main reasons why Nigeria is the leading country worldwide in infections among children.
But in spite of the gut-wrenching situation in Nigeria, the world is pointing to African countries such as Botswana, Ethiopia, Zambia, South Africa and Ghana as sterling examples in the fight against new infections, especially among children. Botswana had just 320 infections (a 52 per cent decline) among children in 2012; Ethiopia recorded a drop of 50 per cent with 9,500 children infected; Ghana logged a huge decline of 76 per cent (950 infections); and South Africa had a decline of 63 per cent or 15,000 new infections.
The UNAIDS attributed the infections principally to lack of access to antiretroviral drugs for pregnant women. But corruption, which contributes significantly to the high rate of poverty in the country, also plays a crucial role, while recent health ministers have failed to focus on the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS, a disease that is still incurable, but can be successfully managed, as the case of United States basketball player, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who declared his HIV-positive status in 1991, shows. Magic has stayed healthy with the ART drugs. Also, the cases of Timothy Ray Brown and a two-and-a-half year-old Mississippi girl, who was infected by HIV at birth (mother-to-child transmission) in the US but has become functionally cured, have given the world the hope that it is possible to cure those afflicted with HIV if early treatment is applied.
Sadly, Nigeria has been lagging behind in most health indices, forcing many citizens facing minor and major illnesses to seek solutions overseas. Osahon Enabulele, President of the Nigeria Medical Association, said it cost sick Nigerians $260 million to seek treatment in India in 2012 alone. With global medical tourism worth $20 billion per annum, Enabulele said Nigerians sought treatment in countries such as the United Kingdom, the US, Germany and Saudi Arabia at a total cost of $500 million last year. This is a great disservice to the economy, which is bleeding from other sources of foreign exchange leakage.
To confirm Enabulele’s assertion, the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, said at a town hall meeting he had with physicians from Nigeria based in the US last month that 35,000 and 40,000 Nigerians sought medical treatment in the UK and the US respectively each year. “The high level of medical tourism has been a major source of leakage in Nigeria’s growing economy,” Sanusi said.
The health ministries at the federal and state levels, and departments at the local government level have to re-double their efforts to reduce the HIV figure in Nigeria to a manageable ratio. Although medical science has yet to discover a cure for HIV – a viral disease – “with focused efforts every child can be born free from HIV,” says Michel Sidibé, Executive Director, UNAIDS. This should be Nigeria’s target. Pregnant women infected with HIV, which can be contracted through unsafe sexual practices, unsterilised needles and taking unscreened blood, should be made aware of the course of treatment, while persons living with the disease should have easy access to ART drugs.
Our health authorities, NACA and international aid agencies have to revive the discarded anti-AIDS awareness campaign with the aim of reducing the rate at which people contract the virus.