Two neighbouring countries with different approaches to the HIV/AIDS pandemic
by Ousman Sillah “I was like skin and bone and had to go through many herbal treatments without seeing any improvement. My family distanced themselves from me when they suspected that I had contracted HIV/AIDS. I would have died if it were not for this support society that gave me hope and company as well as the opportunity to receive regular ARV treatment and food rations,” said the woman I met at the monthly meeting of one of the support groups for persons living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in The Gambia.
Amadou Dia, the president of a support group of PLWHA in Senegal, recently said on a private Senegalese television station that he has been living with HIV for more than a decade now and is still surviving, thanks to the antiretroviral treatment (ART). “I know I will die with the virus, but I am confident that AIDS will not be the cause of my death because of ARV,” he confidently added.
What these remarks highlight, however, is the dangers involved in going for herbal treatment without proper diagnosis and the importance of early detection, early treatment and the timely use of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs as well as access to proper nutrition as means to contain the HIV infection.
HIV/AIDS prevalence remains a major health challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa. This has led to conventional and non-conventional (traditional medicine) approaches in providing treatment to the ailment. In some sub-Saharan African countries, HIV/AIDS prevalence is actually managed, while in others it is increasing.
Claims and counter claims abound, particularly in the West Africa sub-region. However, what we do know is that the prevalence is higher in The Gambia than in Senegal. The prevalence rate in Senegal, which is among the lowest in Africa, is 0.7 percent, while it is 1.5 % in The Gambia, according to the UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic 2013.
HIV prevalence survey of HIV 1 (green) and HIV 2 (blue) in The Gambia Source: UNAIDS Country report 2013
Percentage of seropositive from 15-49 years per region
Source: EDS-MICS, Senegal 2010-11
It is therefore a matter of public interest to find out how the illness is being treated in two countries, namely the Gambia and Senegal, which share boundaries and cultural heritage.
“Cowries, rosary beads and ‘Listikhar’ (prayers) cannot see or treat the HIV virus,” revealed a composed Mamadou Ba, President of GESTU, the Senegalese organisation of traditional medicine practitioners (tradipracticians), who also doubles as the President of the network of tradipracticians in West Africa.
However, he added “As Africans who have survived through the ages and using herbs to treat illnesses, we should not condemn the practice of traditional medicine. We should try and integrate the practice and make it adapt to modern scientific methods.”
The Gambian head of state, President Yahya Jammeh, earlier this year, declared 17th January National Traditional Medicine Day. The President’s focus on using traditional African medicinal practices to cure disease is not new. In 2007, he took the world by storm in declaring that he has found a cure for HIV/AIDS and eventually set up the President’s Alternative Treatment Programme. 7 years later, the programme continues to receive patients. I took interest in trying to find out how many people are living with HIV/AIDS in The Gambia, how many had undergone the treatment under the president’s programme, the method adopted in diagnosing the patient, the type of treatment that is administered and whether it is exclusively non-conventional (traditional), the number of people cured and the follow up programme to monitor whether or not there are relapses.
However, all attempts to get official statistics from the National AIDS Secretariat (NAS) and the essence of the breakthrough from Dr. Tamsir Mbowe, the Director of the Programme, proved negative due to their insistence on getting clearance from the Office of the President, even though a letter from the said office which indicates that I could use footages of the treatment programme was shown to them.
The key perspective in Senegal is that HIV/AIDS is yet to have a cure and that all interventions to its treatment should be subjected to scientific validation and regulation, as buttressed by Dr. Col. Seyni Ndoye, Coordinator of Strategic Communication at the Conseil National de Lutte contre le Sida (CNLS).
In the case of The Gambia, the perspective being conveyed in the official media is that there is a breakthrough. But what is found on the ground is that the patients who are interviewed are relying on antiretroviral drugs and good nutrition provided by support societies.
Why the prevalence rate is level in Senegal and rising in The Gambia is a question that needed to be addressed. But because of the lack of an interview with the relevant authorities in The Gambia to get the records and data, the facts are still left to be sorted out. Regardless, the claims and counter claims, accusations and denials continue. The consolation, however, is that those living with HIV/AIDS are becoming increasingly determined to speak out on what they think is helping them to survive. This report was produced with the support of The African Story Challenge @ African Media Initiative.
Ousman talking to an herbalist
Ousman Sillah (right) and cameraman on the ferry en route to Dakar
Ousman Sillah and a herbalist in Kounghueul, Senegal