Sudan faces a 'real threat' from HIV/Aids

Emmanuel Amoko shrugs off the social stigma attached to Aids in his southern Sudanese community. Instead, the 16-year-old—who lost his father to the disease—is determined to increase awareness among his peers about the dangers of Aids and to help orphans left behind.

Amoko is one of a group of about 250 Juba children, ages six to 16, who lost one or both parents to Aids and are speaking openly about the disease’s causes and prevention as part of anti-Aids efforts by the Sudanese government and international organisations.

He and his family knew almost nothing of the disease before his father’s death, Amoko said.

“But when I knew, I felt I should learn from it,” said the teenager, looking sad but determined.

He did not say how his father contracted the disease but stressed he was not ashamed of how he died.

“I am sad that I lost my father, nothing more,” said Amoko, who lives with an uncle. His mother lives in another quarter of Juba with her own parents.

Barely two years ago, Aids was a taboo subject in this part of southern Sudan.
Uneducated about the causes of the disease, many people believed if one person was infected, the entire family would fall ill, as would anyone who came in contact with them. Thus those who had the virus often kept it a secret. But initiatives by the government and the World Health Organisation and Unicef have opened up discussion of the affliction.

In January, an accelerated HIV/Aids campaign focussing on youth was kicked off in Juba by Unicef and the federal Sudan National Aids program, known as Snap.

The government’s focus on Juba seem to be in preparation for the huge population influx expected here once a peace agreement is reached to end Sudan’s 21-year civil war between the Islamic government and rebels in the south. The conflict took nearly two million lives—most through war-induced famine—but peace talks are now in the final stages.

Health Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman said Juba’s 350 000 population could surge to one-million when refugees return.

“Most of them will be coming from neighbouring countries with a high percentage of HIV/Aids. The war in the bush is coming to an end, but we will have to lead a new war against this disease,” Osman said on a visit.

Snap said earlier this month that Sudan faces a “real threat” from HIV/Aids. The rate of infection nationwide stands at two percent, about 660 000 of Sudan’s 33-million population, according to the Health Ministry. In Juba, where the first case was diagnosed in the early 1980s, experts estimate the rate could be much higher.

“The future scenario of the epidemic can be the worst worldwide considering all the vulnerability factors which prevail in the country,” Snap said in a statement.

“However, we can demonstrate a success story if we act vigorously to combat this scenario.”

Experts say not only Sudan’s proximity to Aids-stricken countries raises its risks, but also poor hygiene and a general lack of knowledge about the disease.

Amoko said in his talks about Aids to youths in poverty-stricken Juba, he must mention simple things like not sharing razor blades, as well as the transmission of the disease through sex.

“In all my talks with my peers, some listen to my warning ... some do not listen. But I never give up,” he said.

Amoko and others in the orphans group wear anti-Aids T-shirts at community events, and the campaign against the disease has sponsored art and dance competitions for secondary-school students.

The government has said it will ensure that the Aids orphans get a high school education, and Joanna Van Gerpen, Unicef’s representative to Sudan, said the group will keep up its support for the effort to make youth aware of Aids prevention.

“What is encouraging in all this is that the people of Juba have taken this bold step to invite other counterparts and partners to help them tackle the HIV/Aids challenges,” she said.

In January, Sudan’s first free counseling and testing centre for Aids opened in Juba, sponsored by the government and UN agencies.

Various testing facilities were already available in Sudan, but usually cost $10 per person—far beyond the means of most Sudanese.

Amoko said one of his main concerns is that those left orphaned by Aids get support and understanding from the community so they can carry on with their schooling and take their place in society.

“I am lucky because I have a relative to stay with and am doing fine at school,” said the teen, who wants to become an engineer like his father. “Other kids in Juba don’t have the same luck. So we are appealing to everybody to help them out, to help us.” - Sapa-AP

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