Friday

Lundazi scores first in HIV/AIDS fight

By NEBERT MULENGA

The border district of Lundazi in Eastern Province has made remarkable achievements in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

It is probably the only district in Zambia where people are daily flocking to health institutions and service organisations to voluntarily have their blood tested for the possible presence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

And people living with HIV are actually the best advocates in the campaign against the further spread of the pandemic in Lundazi.

They are not shy at all to openly declare their status especially at gatherings meant to raise awareness - a rare sight in urban places like Lusaka where some people living with HIV/AIDS have to fight to the bitter end to hide their status. For fear of stigma and discrimination, even on the death bed, the status of certain patients still remains a top secret of the doctor!

But in Lundazi, people are convinced that it helps a lot to be open about one’s status. In fact, when going to seek medical attention, people declare their status without much ado.

For instance, instead of saying “I am suspecting I have malaria,” a person living with HIV/AIDS in Lundazi would rather say “I am HIV positive” and leave the rest in the hands of medical experts to determine.

“It does not pay to hide your status when you know it because the doctor is forced to go on carrying out one test after the other.

But if you mention that you are positive, he is able to easily identify the opportunistic infection you may be suffering from,” said Joseph Mkandawire who was found accessing services at Kapichila Rural Health Centre recently.

Mr Mkandawire, who has been living positively with the virus since the year 2000, said opening up about his status had helped him to lead a happy life after he was diagnosed HIV positive.

“HIV/AIDS is an illness like any other. There is no need to feel ashamed or stigmatised about it because everyone will die someday anyway,” he added.

In agreeing with Mr Mkandawire’s comments, Kapichila Rural Health Centre environmental technologist, Charles Kondowe said the positive attitude of most people living with HIV was helping the health centre to provide adequate care and support to the affected. Such support comes in form of food supplements, essential drugs and counselling sessions on various issues affecting them.

“The open-mindedness of our clients makes things a lot easier. We have 17 people in Kazonga area, 25 in Mkomba and 16 at Mapala who have gone public about their HIV/AIDS status,” Mr Kondowe said.

And the pattern is the same throughout the district. At the district administrative centre, the achievements are even more because in addition to adopting positive lifestyles, the people living with HIV/AIDS are also empowered with survival skills.

Through the help of several HIV/AIDS service organisations dotted across Lundazi, the affected people are acquiring skills in carpentry, tailoring and making tie-and-dye batiks, among others.

And there is no discrimination against the people living with the virus in awarding such training. If anything, they are specifically targeted at such people.

To be quite candid about the HIV/AIDS fight in Lundazi, the district has reduced cases of stigmatisation and discrimination to the barest minimum.

This is why when you visit Lundazi especially during the day, chances are that you will find many people clad in T-shirts and caps labelled “I am HIV positive” and no one seems to care much about it.

Could it be that these people are actually proud to be HIV positive? Do they think of the full repercussions of being diagnosed HIV positive?

Have they ever seen how HIV/AIDS patients suffer to their death?

“My brother, it is normal to think like that. But for us nothing really matters because we cannot change things and we know that with a positive lifestyle, only the sky is the limit. Moreover, all Lundazi residents have accepted HIV/AIDS to be a normal illness like any other,” responded Ms Shupi Nyirenda after the author pestered her to testify on the psychological impact of living with HIV/AIDS.

As a member of Thandizani community-based HIV/AIDS prevention and care programme which is doing a lot in promoting health lifestyles in Lundazi, Ms Nyirenda said she found it easier to counsel people on the disease - whether positive or negative.

With the help of Thandizani, Ms Nyirenda together with 300 others who are living positively in Lundazi, recently underwent a short course in making tie-and-die batiks while others were trained in carpentry and joinery. They are now using the acquired skills to earn a living.

Thandizani executive director, Geoffrey Chikunjiko said people living with HIV/AIDS had greatly contributed to the successful implementation of awareness programmes in Lundazi.

Currently, Thandizani as a lead agency funding other HIV/AIDS service organisations in the district, is carrying out several programmes meant to change the HIV/AIDS record of Lundazi, for better.

There is a specific programme dealing with empowering youths against the disease while the other one deals with prevention of mother to child transmission of the disease.

But probably, the most popular and successful programme is the mobile voluntary counselling and testing which keeps moving from village to village, encouraging people to know their status.

In every village where the programme is introduced, people of all age groups form up long winding queues to undergo the test - out of their own accord.

“I have decided to do the testing not because I am promiscuous or doubting myself. But it is important to know the status so that you know how to carry yourself,” explained Martin Kalenga who was found having a blood test in Katandala area.

The mobile voluntary counselling and testing programme has led to an increase in the demand for HIV/AIDS services in Lundazi.

In 2004, Mr Chikunjiko said: “An average of 58 men and women accessed VCT services per month but now we are recording over 160 HIV tests every month.”

As a result of the positive response of the communities, Thandizani has even been licenced to carry out blood tests for HIV by the ministry of Health.

This is a service which until recently, was only restricted to district hospitals in rural areas.

Through the financial support of the Zambia National AIDS Network (ZNAN), Thandizani is currently spreading its programmes to the neighbouring Malawi - targeting cross border traders and commercial sex workers who are at a higher risk of contracting the disease.

A few weeks ago, ZNAN gave out a grant of K1.2 billion to Thandizani for various HIV/AIDS activities in the district.

ZNAN information and communications officer Sam Kapembwa disclosed that the money would be sub-granted to other smaller community-based organisations to help promote the full implementation of HIV/AIDS programmes in Lundazi.

“Part of this money will go towards scaling up income-generating activities which are designed to make the organisation self-sustaining and reduce its donor dependency in the long run,” he said.

Mr Kapembwa said the money would also be used for sensitising high risk groups like traders, commercial sex workers and truckers involved in the cross-border trade initiative between Zambia and Malawi on HIV/AIDS.

One only hopes other districts could get a lesson or two from the way the border district of Lundazi has fought the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the area.It is an effort worth emulating!

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