Ghana’s government is taking a new approach in fighting HIV, which has infected several hundred thousand Ghanaians. Voice of America English to Africa's Lameck Masina was in Accra and reports on some of the challenges facing the government as it works to improve the care and support of its AIDS patients.
The latest official statistics indicate that a little over two percent of all Ghanaians are infected with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS. Right now that’s about 300,000 people. But a new study warns that if the current trend continues, in about seven years the figure could rise to 1.6 million.
To help prevent that, the government says it is introducing new measures. Retired Major Courage Quashigah is Ghana’s minister of health. He says the first approach uses the media and door-to-door campaigning to help educate the public.
"Initially, we are trying to make sure that everybody can understand that this disease destroys your immune system and renders you completely [defenseless against any infection] so that you could be killed by any disease. So education is one of the key things that we do here in Ghana to let people understand what they are fighting” he says.
Quashigah says his ministry has also embarked on a program to provide nutritious food to people with HIV/ Aids. The aim is to boost immune systems weakened by the virus. Research by the World Health Organization says good nourishment can extend the life of HIV/AIDS patients up to eight years.
The government has also instructed all ministries to provide funding for their own HIV/AIDS activities. Quashigah says the government is also working to improve the supply of anti-retrovirals (ARVs.)
George Okyere is the researcher into HIV / AIDS in Ghana. He tells VOA that ARVs are in short supply for People Living With HIV and AIDS, often called PLHIVs.
“ARVs are found in Ghana in few hospitals and the sad aspect of it is that they are being sold and 50,000 Cedis (about US$5) to PLHIVs (People Living with HIV and Aids) in Ghana, but in other countries it is free. So why are we doing this?”
Out of 300,000 people infected, only 70,000 are reported to be on ARVs because they are scarce and expensive.
Minister Quashigah denies that ARVs are sold in Ghana, but he does say that those receiving the medications must pay a small amount as a contribution to help cut the cost.
He says “We are not selling the ARVs. For counseling and consultations we are only asking them to pay less than 50 cents. Don’t forget that things that are absolutely free are not taken seriously. We are trying to make sure that people take the administration of the ARVs seriously. If it was free they can just take it and decide to throw it somewhere.”
He says the government also encourages abstinence and the use of condoms as part of its HIV prevention strategy.
Despite these interventions, stigma and discrimination remain a big challenge for people living with HIV/aids in Ghana. Reverend Francis Yalley is an activist fighting on their behalf. He says most people refuse to go for testing for fear of facing discrimination.
“The stigmatization is very strong so there are many people who have it (HIV/AIDS) and yet (do) not go into public because you might lose your job, you might lose your position, your family might reject you. So (it’s a question of) ‘If I have it, let me keep it to myself.’”
Yalley is also the head of the Ghana-based Bridge Ministries International. He says even some faith-based organizations, which include up to 65 percent of the Ghanaian population, are doing nothing to curb stigmatization.
He says, “Some churches still believe that it takes sinful people to have HIV, because it is believed that they have it through sex. If you have it, the church might not even welcome you and would like to put you in a camp somewhere to move you away from the society. There was even case where a pastor was sacked from his church because he was found that he had with HIV.”
Revered Yalley blames this on poor government policy regarding the care and support of people living with HIV and Aids. He urges policymakers to address HIV-related stigma by reviewing discriminatory laws and helping monitor their enforcement. He says these actions will go a long way to eliminating negative attitudes towards those infected.
Ghana recorded its first HIV case in 1986. The country was among the first in West Africa to take decisive steps to control its spread.
In 1987 the government established the National STDs/AIDS Control Program, under the ministry of Health’s Diseases Control Unit. It is charged with reducing the transmission of the infection and with mitigating the impact of the disease.
Meanwhile, the Ghana AIDS Commission is trying to reduce the spread of the pandemic and provide relief to those affected by it.
Despite these attempts, critics say the infection rate is continuing to increase.