Ms Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, on Friday expressed worry about soaring HIV infections in Uganda – a global poster child for success in containing the virus - and urged immediate government action to reverse the trend.
“I am here because I am worried,” she said in a nightfall address to a group of men and women, part of 300, 000 Ugandans on anti-retroviral treatment, whose responses oscillated between cheers and lamentation. “In recent years Secretary Clinton said, “the focus on (HIV) prevention has faded and new infections are on the rise again.”
President Museveni’s openness about the scourge coupled with government’s adoption of Abstinence, Being faithful and Condom use (ABC) strategy to fight HIV/Aids helped lower infection rates from more than 20 per cent to about 5.6 per cent.
As a reward, Washington through the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) initiative – started by ex-President George Bush in 2004 - pumped millions of dollars and experts flew in from across the world to learn and duplicate the miracles of Uganda’s ABC model.
However, complacence and a bigoted disapproval to condoms by especially Pentecostal and Catholic clerics – they say use of the protective rubber during sexual intercourse gives a false sense of security, and encourages promiscuity – has seen the spread of the incurable disease rise by about a percentage-point to 7.4 within seven years from 2005, according to the latest survey findings.
Speaking at Reach Out Mbuya, a US government-funded faith-based organisation in a Kampala suburb serving some 5, 000 HIV patients, Secretary Clinton was both critical and upbeat.
“I first came to Uganda in the 1990s because there was not anywhere else in the world where I could have gone in the world that was doing a better job [on HIV/Aids],” she said.
“Uganda is now the only country [besides Chad] in Sub-Saharan Africa where the rate of HIV/Aids is going up instead of going down. I am hoping that together, we can work on making prevention the focus again and making sure that the rate of infection goes down.” The US leadership’s frustration with Uganda’s staggering results and emerging mixed policies on HIV/Aids has been incubating for a while.
In an August 3, 2010 meeting at the White House with Young African Leaders, which this reporter attended, President Barack Obama said it was pointless for his government to fund HIV programmes when new people were catching the virus, and those on life-saving drugs spreading it.
“We’re never going to have enough money to simply treat people who are constantly getting infected,” he said then, “We’ve got to have a mechanism to stop the transmission rate.”
That mechanism, Secretary Clinton said on Friday, is prevention; especially of mother-to-child HIV transmission.
And Uganda’s Health minister Christine Ondoa agreed. The successes of Reach Out Mubuya headed by Dr Stella Alamo Talifuna, she said, show the “amazing things that can happen when governments, faith-based networks, and communities join together to work for a common cause.”
“The partnership between Uganda and the United States is critical in the continued fight against HIV/Aids, she said, “My ministry stands firm in our commitment to turn the tide against HIV/Aids in Uganda.”
The Catholic Church-run Reach Out Mbuya centre is dear to the US not just for its services to thousands of downtrodden people in Kampala’s Mbuya, Banda and Kinawataka suburbs as well as Kisaala area of Luweero District, but also because the first Aids patient to receive Anti-retroviral drugs under PEPFAR is surviving here.
43-year-old John Robert Engole nearly died in 2003 when his CD4 count dropped to 1 – doctors said it was a miracle he survived – before being put on ARVs in 2004, enabling him to survive for at least another 8 years. He on Friday gave Ms Clinton a moving testimony about the fallacy of living in denial with the virus and his stunning recovery after starting on life-saving drugs.