Uganda's former prime minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, has applauded the U.S. Agency for International Development for its support in fighting AIDS, saying the country cannot afford to treat patients on its own.
An estimated 1.2 million Ugandans aged 15 to 64 are living with HIV/AIDS and surviving on anti-retroviral drugs. Almost all HIV/AIDS patients receive the drugs through financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Rugunda, speaking as chief guest at celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the USAID partnership with Uganda, painted a picture of what HIV/AIDS was before U.S. support.
Rugunda recalled that as the AIDS pandemic ravaged the country in the 1990s and early 2000s, the government had no means to afford treatment for patients.
"We knew that AIDS drugs had been developed and they could control AIDS in many ways. The problem we had in Uganda was the drug is there, the people are here needing the drugs, but there's a gap," Rugunda said. "How does Uganda fill the gap? The taxpayer in Uganda, even if he or she was squeezed so hard, could not fill the gap."
In more recent years, Uganda has registered significant success in the fight against HIV, as seen in reduced HIV prevalence and a decline in new infections.
USAID Uganda Mission Director Richard Nelson said his agency and its partners have prioritized HIV/AIDS for the last 20 years and are getting close to control of the epidemic, but obstacles remain.
Uganda's parliament this month passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that criminalizes identifying as LGBT, mandates life in prison for gay sex, and imposes a possible death sentence for certain homosexual acts. THe bill is awaiting President Yoweri Museveni's veto or signature.
Nelson said the bill's progress is being watched carefully because it could scare people away from seeking treatment for HIV or AIDS.
"The last remaining work that needs to be done to reach epidemic control involves some of these key populations," he said. "And so, if those key populations are unable to access services, if it's difficult for us to provide those services, it will really jeopardize our ability to reach our goals of eliminating HIV/AIDS by 2030."
Even before the bill was passed by parliament, organizations providing HIV/AIDS care services were seeing people shy away from getting anti-retroviral drugs.
Henry Mukiibi, founder of one such group, Children of the Sun, spoke with VOA: "I've seen the number of people who are HIV positive, the number of people who are suppressing now is going down. Because people are in fear of getting health services in public facilities."
According to the Uganda AIDS Commission, stigma, denial, discrimination, inaction and violations of human rights continue to be major barriers to effective national responses to HIV.