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World AIDS Day 2016: A Report from Adi Keih, Eritrea

World AIDS Day 2016: A Report from Adi Keih, Eritrea
By Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

For the second consecutive year, World AIDS Day was commemorated at the College of Arts and Social Sciences, located in Adi Keih, a small town in the south of Eritrea. World AIDS Day, annually celebrated on December 1st, is one of several global public health days recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO). The significance of World Aids Day is that it allows people worldwide to come together to combat HIV/AIDS, renew support for people infected, and respectfully remember those who have died.

This year’s program in Adi Keih, organized by the Department of Sociology and Social Work at CASS, began early in the morning, as university students of all levels, various faculty and staff, and local secondary school students and staff came together to march throughout the town. Following the colourful citywide procession, marked by boisterous chants and eye-catching posters featuring catchy slogans, the program shifted to the CASS campus’ large auditorium. Kibrom Tadesse, a fourth-year Sociology and Social Work student, gave an impressively detailed presentation on international and regional trends and statistics, before Simon Weldemichael, from the CASS PFDJ Office, provided an illuminating and thought-provoking discussion of key factors and consequences associated with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, a representative from the Ministry of Health’s local branch also provided an informative summary of recent local trends, underscored important interventions and precautions, and outlined substantive steps for moving forward.

One of the highlights of the program was a brief, yet moving, drama performance conducted by students enrolled in the Department of Fine Arts and Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. The skit, examining the deep emotional challenges faced by a family after learning that one of their members has HIV/AIDS, received enthusiastic applause from the audience.

As with last year’s program, members of CASS and the surrounding community came together near the center of the campus for a tree planting ceremony. The trees are a symbol of commemoration for people who have passed due to HIV/AIDS, as well as an important reminder of the need to maintain utmost vigilance in combating the epidemic. The final event of the day was an evening film screening of El Alag Mausam (A Different Season), a gripping story of HIV/AIDS, love, and culture set in India.

Overall, the series of programs and activities were well-received. Attendees, ranging from staff and students of CASS to youth from the surrounding town of Adi Keih, expressed appreciation and admiration. Dr. Bimal Kanta Nayak, Assistant Professor within the Department of Sociology and Social Work, and one of the main organizers of the event, stated “It was a wonderful day and I am extremely proud of everyone’s efforts towards making it a great success.” Dr. Nayak also went on to underscore that HIV/AIDS “remains a global issue,” and that, “although much progress has been made, much [work] remains. We have to come together as individuals and communities to eliminate HIV/AIDS, improve access and equity, reduce stigma, and encourage prevention.”

At CASS, the Department of Sociology is merged with the Department of Social Work, which explores a range of social problems and issues, including HIV/AIDS, and seeks effective, efficient societal interventions. In addition to coursework, the department’s students, numbering over 70, also participate in fieldtrips and fieldwork, where they are able to practically apply many of the facts and theories learned within the classroom to assist individuals and communities eliminate or reduce factors that contribute to the problems people experience.

The College of Arts and Social Sciences, currently within its seventh academic year, has an annual enrolment of approximately 1500 students, nearly evenly split between males and females. Located near several significant traditional and historical sites, the school has ten total academic departments, nine of which award degrees while one awards diplomas. Furthermore, the college also boasts a traditional and digital library, bookstore, staff and student cafeterias, recreation lounge featuring satellite television and games, all-weather outdoor sports courts, intercollegiate athletic teams, and various student clubs.

HIV/AIDS in Eritrea: A Quick Recap
Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

Since the start of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, an estimated 78 million people have become infected with HIV and 35 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses. According to UNAIDS, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) remains the region most heavily affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Specifically, of the over 35 million people living with HIV, over 25 million are living in SSA, and the region accounts for approximately 75% of all the people dying from AIDS-related causes. However, amidst these stark figures and though HIV/AIDS remains one of Africa’s most significant public health challenges, significant progress has been made. For example, prior to 2001, HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa was nearly nonexistent; yet, now some 86% of people living with HIV who know their status in SSA are receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART), and nearly 76% of them have achieved viral suppression.

While many countries have shown significant progress in combating HIV/AIDS, Eritrea’s strong record battling HIV/AIDS stands out positively. For example, its HIV/AIDS-related figures – prevalence in the country is approximately 0.59% among 15-45 year olds – are distinguished as amongst the best, both within the region and comparatively across the continent. Eritrea’s success in combating HIV/AIDS is founded upon a multisectoral approach that also involves the targeting of harmful societal behaviours and traditions. Specifically, the country has: targeted traditional and patriarchal stereotypes and practices, including banning child marriage and FGM/FGC; focused on improving gender equality and decreasing the burden of poverty borne by women; and sought to reduce stigma and discrimination. Furthermore, community awareness programs have been vigorous and effective in the social marketing of condoms, communicating safe practices, offering educational programs, and providing youth or peer counselling.

The country’s commitment to the rights and health of citizens living with HIV/AIDS is also illustrated by considering the high levels of support for antiretroviral therapy (ART), which helps avert HIV/AIDS related deaths and is a critical factor in driving down the rate of new infections. Additionally, Eritrea has established numerous Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) and Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) centers throughout the country. VCTs offer rapid testing and pre- and post-test counselling, are staffed with trained counsellors, and operate according to national guidelines, while PMTCT centers chiefly focus on pregnant women, offering testing services and supporting those found HIV-positive in preventing the transmission of HIV to their children.

Considering Eritrea’s figures and progress in the context of its various socio-economic, development, and regional challenges or in comparison to other countries throughout Africa, the country’s success becomes particularly striking. Potentially serving as a model for Africa, Eritrea’s HIV/AIDS success also illustrates what can be achieved with a self-reliant approach, a capacity to adapt, effective coordination, and cost-effective projects. At the same time, however, the potentially devastating consequences posed by HIV/AIDS – in terms of human rights, severe human toll, and national developmental disaster – mean that the country has little room for complacency.

Increasingly, HIV/AIDS has been recognized as a fundamental human rights issue, with HIV/AIDS and human rights being inextricably linked. A lack of respect for human rights drives the HIV/AIDS epidemic and increases its impact, while at the same time, HIV/AIDS undermines progress in the realisation of human rights. Moreover, the HIV/AIDS epidemic not only affects the health of individuals, it impacts households, communities, and the development and socio-economic growth of nations. For example, HIV/AIDS increases demand for personnel and financial resources in the health and social sectors, and can have a drastic effect on rural development, including declining food production. Additionally, many of the countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS also suffer from other infectious diseases, food insecurity, and various other serious problems. Recent UNAIDS estimates indicate that US$ 26.2 billion will be required for the AIDS response in 2020, with US$ 23.9 billion required in 2030.

Ultimately, Eritrea must continue to augment its existing programmes and further promote effective initiatives and interventions in order to control and reduce the harmful impact of HIV/AIDS, while also expanding attention to HIV in national planning, gender equality, and socio-economic efforts.

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