SUDAN: Stigma continues to hold back Darfur's HIV fight
Many people travel miles to get tested at a VCT centre where they are unlikely to be recognized
NYALA, 13 October 2010 (IRIN) - There are nine voluntary counselling and testing centres in the Sudanese state of South Darfur, but rather than risk being recognized at one of them, many people travel to a different state to seek HIV testing or treatment.
"My best friend is HIV-positive and every month travels to El-Fasher [capital of North Darfur] to get ARVs," a young tea seller living in Kalma camp for internally dispaced people (IDPs), South Darfur, told IRIN/PlusNews. "She could get the drugs in Nyala [capital of South Darfur] but doesn't want people to know she is sick - she hasn't told anyone else but me.
"I don't blame her; she thinks she would be excluded by the entire community and family if she disclosed her status," she added.
In 2007 an association of people living with HIV was created in Nyala to encourage HIV-positive people to exchange experiences and take the lead in advocacy, but three years on, only 25 people are members.
HIV prevalence remains low in Darfur - about 0.25 percent according to the most recent household survey, carried out in 2006. However, knowledge of the epidemic is very low; according to the survey, more than 46 percent of women aged 15-49 in Darfur had no knowledge about HIV prevention.
"The problem is many people still do not know enough about the disease, its methods of transmission or its consequences," Ahmed Dawoodd, HIV and sexually transmitted infections coordinator for the Ministry of Health in South Darfur, told IRIN/PlusNews. "Fear of the unknown generates stigma and this is why more awareness is needed."
According to a Sudan National AIDS Programme survey conducted nationally in 2009, 53.2 percent of respondents said they would not buy food from anyone with HIV/AIDS; 44 percent said they would not eat with an AIDS patient, while about 30 percent said they would prohibit a teacher with HIV from working or would remove their child from a school with an HIV-positive teacher.
The region's conservative culture means condoms are not publicly promoted or widely available, with locals generally only able to find them at health centres.
In 2010, the joint African Union-UN Mission in Darfur [UNAMID] started providing logistical support to the Sudan National AIDS Programme (SNAP) to facilitate condom distribution to health centres in rural areas, but due to logistical constraints, remote villages and high-risk areas bordering neighbouring Chad remain out of reach.
UNAMID also recently held HIV education seminars for 1 50 prisoners in Zalingei jail in West Darfur.
The Ministry of Health and its partners have begun implementing awareness-raising programmes among high-risk groups; with the NGO Patients Helping Fund and other partners, they have trained 50 tea sellers and 20 truck drivers in Nyala and provided mobile voluntary counselling and testing to 300 local police officers.
In addition, the UN Children's Fund provides information and educational materials on HIV prevention to children, teachers, religious and community leaders, while the UN Population Fund
has supported the State Ministry of Health and international NGOs in establishing youth centres and raising awareness on HIV/AIDS among Darfur’s camp communities.
"Progress has been made in fighting the stigma but [it's] only the tip of the iceberg," said Dawood.