Chad battles HIV in the youth

Mani Djelassem has been driving HIV awareness in her community

Mani Djelassem has been driving HIV awareness in her community

Seventeen-year-old Mani Virgille Djelassem has been involved in raising awareness among adolescents about HIV at a centre in Chad for just over a year now. Every Saturday, she participates in educative programmes and group discussions, showing the little ones between the ages of five and 10 how to take their medication and talking to the teenagers about their status. 

“I speak to the young people to encourage them, and also about how to be careful,” says the soft-spoken Djelassem. “It’s not always easy, but it’s something I like doing.”

Initially, like many of her peers, she was reluctant to reveal her status at school in a country where those with HIV are still stigmatised. ‘There are some who reject you because of your illness, but I have friends who are with me at the centre. I’m not alone,’ she said telephonically from her hometown Moundou, the second-largest city in Chad, 475km south of the capital Ndjamena.

The centre where Djelassem helps out is the only centre specifically designed to help adolescents living with HIV in Chad. There are 27 000 girls and 11 000 boys living with the disease in the country.

Awareness programmes also exist in the 23 youth and cultural centres in Chad, but these are not specifically linked to the local clinics or health facilities.

Figures show that while infection rates are declining worldwide, those in the youth between the ages of 10 and 19 are rising. HIV remains the biggest cause of death of adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the fact that treatment is now readily available in many places, vastly increasing the survival rates, many are still reluctant to get tested.

In Chad, nearly 73% of young people between the ages of 10 and 24 years have never been tested for HIV, according to a recent study.

According to the UNICEF country office in Chad, significant progress has been made to provide free treatment and access to health care services for those living with HIV. Between 2005 and 2013 the number of people receiving antiretrovirals in Chad has tripled, says UNICEF. This is thanks to local efforts and the Global Fund against Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which finances efforts that prevent or treat these diseases.

Djelassem says if there is a problem in accessing medication in an area, the centre always comes to the rescue.

 “Our main challenge is access to medication. But if there is a shortage somewhere, the people at the centre help us by giving us our medication,” says Djelassem, who was appointed spokesperson for the youth of Chad in 2015. Part of her work is to help Chad’s first lady Hinda Deby with awareness programmes around the country. The fact that she chose to speak out about her status encourages others to do so. 

Philippe Barragne-Bigot, UNICEF representative in Chad, says: “Adolescents are the present and the future of a country. They need to be protected, to be informed and to be better guided so they can fully assume their responsibilities and duties as citizens.” 

Barragne-Bigot was speaking at the national launch earlier this month of a programme to raise awareness about HIV among the youth, in collaboration with UNICEF and other sponsors co-ordinated by UNAIDS. 

The programme, called the “All-in” campaign to #EndAdolescentAIDS is destined to halt the rise in infections amongst the youth population.

“These adolescents are at a crossroads. They do no have enough information to protect themselves against the virus, hampering their development and social integration.  The elimination of HIV can never be possible if the country does not fill this gap on prevention and treatment in adolescents,” says Barragne-Bigot.

Chad, already a poor, landlocked country with few resources, has suffered hugely from the campaign by the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, which has left tens of thousands of people displaced. The country is also hosting several hundred thousand refugees from neighbouring countries. 

Experts warn that there is a high prevelance of HIV in pregnant women in the refugee camps in Chad. 

In addition, archaic practices like child marriage are still prevelant in Chad. Nearly two out of every three girls in Chad are married before the age of 18. Earlier this year, Chadian President Idriss Deby vowed to rid the country of child marriage, saying this practice keeps girls out of school and hampers the progress made towards women’s empowerment.