A recent visit to Zambia allowed me to see that the HIV/AIDS situation in that country is not much different from ours, which is strange considering that we have many more resources in South Africa for addressing the pandemic.
Why, even in the face of financial adversity, does Zambia seem to demonstrate so much more commitment to tackling AIDS than my own country? A trip to Chawama Health Centre, a public facility south of the capital, Lusaka, answered this question.
The clinic’s rundown appearance created the impression that it was as uneventful as the traders struggling to sell their wares at the nearby market, but this changed when I met the resident healthcare workers, who were still able to uphold their oath of preserving life in spite of being understaffed and overworked. Carrying the additional burden of being situated in a high-risk malaria zone, Chawama’s anti-AIDS intentions were illustrated by a poster in one of the cramped HIV voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) rooms, which read:
“Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is Achievable + Realistic + Time-bound”.
Simple yet powerful, the motto was one that could certainly be followed by the South African government, whose political will only ever gained momentum when it was threatened with losing voter support at election time.
Senior Chawama staff escorted me through the various departments, explaining the successes as well as the hurdles the clinic experienced while attempting to educate individuals and couples about the importance of VCT.
With a total of just 30 beds – 10 for men, 10 for women and 10 for children – it’s hard to imagine that there would be any success stories coming out of this place.
However, midwife Ann Mwape told me ARVs were administered daily to six newborn babies and, despite the obstacle of stigma, prevention of mother-to-child transmission programmes were making strides.
Of course, there were still the usual hiccups, like monitoring mothers and babies who were unable to afford the travel costs of follow-up visits.
“For this, a mobile team is dispatched daily to various community centres within reasonable walking distance for our mothers. The outreach service also helps to alleviate congestion at the clinic,” Mwape said.
In South Africa I was spoiled for choice when it came to healthcare, and I found myself humbled by the almost desperate situation of my HIV-positive Zambian counterparts.
While trying to uncover what made Chawama unique, I realised that the answer had been in plain view all the while – “Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is Achievable + Realistic + Time-bound”.
My government has been taken to task on countless occasions over their indifference to the death of up to 600 South Africans each day from AIDS-related illnesses.
By US or British standards our public healthcare system is nothing to brag about, but compared to other African countries I can confidently say, “we have it made”.
Yet this only seems to fuel my anger at the government. Perhaps if we were all able to look beyond our borders and cultural differences we might benefit from each other’s approaches to the epidemic?
I was sorry to leave Zambia at the end of the week, because being there made me see that effective HIV/AIDS treatment strategies actually have everything to do with compassion and very little to do with the quantity of resources we have. Something those in power clearly need to learn.
(Hayden’s Diary is originally published on PlusNews.)
ABOUT HAYDEN HORNER
I am Hayden Horner, a journalist with the United Nations news agency (IRIN) Integrated Regional Information Network. I write primarily for their HIV/AIDS news service, PlusNews, and cover issues on AIDS from around the continent. I am HIV-positive, though I’ve been told that I don’t look like someone who may eventually die of an AIDS-related illness. I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of that.
Unlike many of the “accidental victims” of this disease, I can’t blame anyone for my infection because, while I did not know it at the time, I chose the path that I am currently on. The diagnosis only helped to encourage me to go on searching for what I was needing to heal. While my search was still for love and happiness, the source would be somewhere else. From within. It took a lot of searching, but I think I am finally at peace with my situation.
I am now 30 years old and single, but I have a fulfilling career, a roof over my head, good friends and a sober mother who has become a pillar of strength for me. So everything turned out okay in the end. I’ve heard that life is a journey, and I plan on enjoying what’s left of the ride.
For more information on Hayden, click here.