I LISTENED with despair last week as a senior government official told the gathering at the launch of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals report that the new HIV and Aids prevalence rate, set at 25 percent, was not as bad as “we are made to believe”.
She argued that the new HIV statistics, depicted by the 2014 Demographic and Health Survey, was a sign that Lesotho was one of the few countries doing exceptionally well in combating the scourge of HIV and Aids.
With a quarter of Lesotho’s adults aged between 15-49 years infected with HIV and the country having the second highest HIV prevalence rate globally, I don’t think this is a development we must celebrate as the official insinuated.
Yes I agree that the 25 percent prevalence rate simply states that 25 persons in every 100 are living with the HIV and are on life-saving medication but this is not a development we should be proud of.
I also agree that efforts to ensure that 90 percent of the people living with the virus were initiated on antiretroviral medicine were bearing positive results.
But just like the Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing differed with Health Minister Dr ‘Molotsi Monyane on June 15, 2016 when announcing the new HIV prevalence rate, I strongly feel that saying the country was not doing bad in fighting the virus is simply misleading the nation.
At the time, Mr Metsing told the press briefing that although medical doctors were trying to downplay these findings he was increasingly getting uncomfortable.
Mr Metsing was quoted saying “this is not a good sign at all”, a statement which I totally agree with and submit that all leaders must be worried by these statistics. Saying this is not a bad sign is simply fooling the nation.
If the country’s HIV prevalence rate was set at 23 percent prior to the 2014 findings, where is this two percent coming from? Can we safely say this two percent is from an already infected group prior to the findings or is this percentage part of the estimated 26 000 new infection rates?
I may not be a medical doctor but I challenge the powers that be to closely look at the relationship between the prevalence and new infection rates before making such bold public statements.
I also submit that no matter which angle one may look at this new prevalence rate, just like the deputy prime minister said, this is bad.
Sugarcoating the HIV prevalence rate is not only misleading to the nation, but indirectly encouraging people to engage in unsafe sex knowing that adding to the high prevalence rate would be celebrated.
Sugarcoating a 25 percent prevalence rate is like telling your child it is good to score poor marks in class and subsequently repeat their grades because smart human beings learn from their mistakes or failures.
I doubt this is the message government wants to put forward. I also doubt Lesotho has enough resources to put out the potential fire statements like one are creating should this “positive” message the country is trying to put forward backfires.
You see, in my experience as a health journalist under the guidance of health experts, I have learnt the importance of carefully selecting words in my writings and discussions as I know how one “innocent” word can distort the whole message and cause unintended harm.
Believe you me, I am not trying to say that efforts being made to achieve the 90-90-90 targets are fruitless but I am simply saying we must be very careful of what we say and do not say to the public. Under the treatment target, 90 percent of all people living with HIV would know their HIV status, 90 percent of all people diagnosed with HIV would receive sustained antiretroviral therapy and 90 percent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy would have viral suppression.
Yes, there are relatively good campaigns, bearing desired fruits, the Kingdom has embarked in like prevention of mother to child (PMTC), introduction of infants’ point-of-care devices and Test and Treat; and I must congratulate government, non-governmental organisations and development partners for initiatives like these ones.
But let us not mislead the nation by saying being the country with the second highest prevalence rate is a good thing. Yes we are doing well on initiating more people on treatment but I can only join in celebrations if we combat new infection rates from 26 000 to zero amongst adults.
Until then, let us be warry of what we say in public, lest we undo all the good efforts governments, development partners, the media and non-governmental organisations have made this far.
We also need to ask ourselves this question before we can put on our dancing shoes and celebrate this prevalence rate. If being the country with second highest prevalence rate is such a positive thing, why is it that HIV experts around the world also use a negative connotation to our prevalence rate?