Uganda is marking International AIDS Candlelight Memorial Day with activities to remember the estimated 2 million Ugandans who have died of the disease.
While the government and development partners have increased campaigns for HIV awareness, however, the stigma and discrimination attached to the disease keep many Ugandans fearful from learning of or talking about their HIV status, says those who carry the virus.
Twenty-five-year-old Namanya Martin Paul was born with HIV. Having lost his father to AIDS at the age of 2, he only learned about his status at age 10 when his mother, also HIV positive, was attending antenatal care. His other three siblings were then found to be HIV-positive.
Paul was forced to change schools due to discrimination until he made a decision to open up.
“It’s not easy. There’s a particular point in time where a nurse got to know my situation, where I was keeping my medication and she actually, like, made it very open to school," Paul said. "So, I called for a school parade and told these people, this is who I am. Am living with HIV, am taking my medication. And, you need to support me.”
The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial Day is one of the world's oldest and largest grassroots mobilization campaigns for HIV awareness.
According to the Uganda AIDS Commission, the country records 50,000 new infections annually, about one-third of them being young people.
Sarah Nakku, the U.N. AIDS community mobilization adviser, says many infected people are careful about revealing their status.
“We do have laws that discriminate against people living with HIV. ... That instead of allowing people to come out openly," Nakku said. "Incidentally, people decide to hide because they do not want to fall victims of the law. We also have schools where discrimination does happen. If you don’t tap into the teachers, this young person cannot be supported to adhere on treatment.”
In 2018, the government launched an initiative that demands every institution, both government and private, address the needs of HIV-positive people as part of its workplace policy.
Dr. Nelson Musoba, director-general of the Uganda AIDS Commission, says that even though the government has set up more effective measures to curb the disease, Ugandans need to be more careful about exposing themselves to HIV.
“So, we also have the pre-exposure prophylaxis, which the HIV-negative partner takes to ensure that they remain HIV-negative. There’s research going on, on vaccines, on other treatments, but we need to stay alive for us to benefit from those technologies. We can’t afford to be reckless just because there’s treatment," Musoba said.
The Ministry of Health says Uganda is close to achieving its "90-90-90" target, set in 2014.
The aim is for 90 percent of people living with HIV to know their status, 90 percent who test positive to enroll in care and treatment, and 90 percent of those in treatment to achieve "viral load suppression" -- that is, for the virus to become inactive.