The Band Plays On: By Fola Adekeye
A non-governmental agency says HIV positive and AIDs-infected Nigerians are losing their rights to work, education and human dignity
Gloria Obi went to work one day recently to find she had lost her job. When she asked for what led to her sacking, her employers referred her to the medical test she did the previous week. Obi had tested positive to HIV. Because her company funded the test, the doctor who received the test reports chose to brief her employers before her.
The doctors action has been listed as one of several cases that violated medical ethics. A report released recently by the Social and Economic Rights Action Center, SERAC, a non-governmental organisation in Lagos says that there is a gross violation of the rights of Nigerians living with HIV and AIDS. Seventy Nine of the One hundred and sixty HIV persons SERAC interviewed, lost their jobs because doctors informed their former employers.
SERAC says the action of the doctors violated the affected peoples rights to work, the protection of their dignity, privacy, health-care, education, housing and marriage.
Although the national policy on HIV/AIDS/STD says no person shall suffer any discrimination on account of his/her HIV/AIDS status several people with the virus are losing their jobs in Nigeria.
Employers now require job applicants to submit themselves for HIV/AIDS tests before recruitment. Felix Morka, director of SERAC, told Newswatch that this practice by the employers violates article 23 of the universal declaration of human rights which says that everyone should have access to employment without any precondition, except the necessary occupational qualification.
People living with HIV in Nigeria are also being denied their rights to education. SERAC recently organised a workshop at which participants were exposed to the experiences of Nigerians with HIV/AIDS. Monday Kenneth, who is HIV positive, told Newswatch that his father stopped paying his school fees when he found that he was HIV positive. Remi Aladeselu reported that her school threatened to expel her, but through the intervention of some HIV/AIDS activists, she was eventually retained, by which time she had missed her examinations and had to repeat a whole session. They demoted me. They made me repeat a whole session. I am sure they were hoping I would die before I finish my education. I am still here though, she told Newswatch.
Ivy Johnson, a mother of three, narrated her experience thus: I used to teach in a private school in Ogba, Lagos. One day, I took ill in school and was rushed to the hospital where I was admitted for six days. When I returned home, my two children Sade and Deolu who were in primary three and four were asked to stop coming to school. When I reported back to work in the school, I asked the headmistress why and she said that she had information that I have AIDS and she did not feel it is safe for me and my children to continue in school. She was sacked. Her children were expelled.
Right now, my husband is making arrangements to move us to Ikotun Egbe, far from people we know, she said.
People with HIV/AIDS are equally being denied their right to healthcare in the country. Out of the 160 people with HIV/AIDS interviewed by SERAC, 60 reported that they were being denied medical care by both private and public hospitals. Pregnant women were denied antenatal care. Most of them said they were thrown out of hospitals as soon as their doctors found out that they had the virus. Health workers, they said, often complained about lack of bleach and gloves which they needed to work with for protection.
Also Nigerians living with HIV/AIDS have complained of eviction by landlords and co-tenants denying them access to toilets and kitchens. Among the 160 interviewed by SERAC, only 20 reported that their landlords did not evict them after knowing their HIV status. Eighty-five of them suffered unpleasant reactions from their landlords and their co-tenants.
Asked if he would retain a tenant with HIV/AIDS in his house, a landlords in Lagos replied: My brother, you know that this disease is bad. It has no cure. I will go and report to the town council to help me eject the tenant without delay.
Morka said he chose to document the experiences of the HIV positive Nigerians and invited some of them to the workshop basically to correct the view that people with HIV virus are sickly, gaunt and about to drop dead. That was even the mind-set of most of the participants at the workshop. They were proved wrong. None of them tell any of the participants with HIV from the others at the workshop until they themselves chose to confess their HIV status under condition of anonymity. It took time before most of them could replace shock with empathy.
The confession of John and his wife shocked participants most. They looked healthy and plump. John tested positive in 1996, a year after his wife.
Kolawole Adeojo, a medical doctor, told Newswatch that only people with full blown AIDS would look sickly and unfit to work. He said people may live with HIV virus for as long as 10 years before showing AIDS symptoms in form of recurring illness, weight loss and death.
The progression of HIV virus to AIDS in human body is now being delayed through anti-AIDS drugs such as AZT, HIVID, Invirase, DDI, Riutonavir, Sawuinaiv, Abacavir and Indinavir. These drugs are on sale in Nigeria for between N35,000 and N55,000 for a months treatment. Jeremiah Abalaka, medical director of Medicrest Specialist Hospital, Abuja claimed he has found vaccines against the virus. His vaccine cost N21,000 per ml. A patient is expected to take five.
Morka said most of the human rights violations now being suffered by HIV-positive Nigerians were as a result of the myth that the virus was contagious. It is not, he said.
Gabi Williams, a doctor and former chairman of UNDP/WHO special programme for research and training on tropical diseases argues in his book, House Doctor, that the virus is usually carried and transmitted in body fluids, particularly, blood, semen and vaginal fluids of infected people. Therefore, any act that involves the exchange of these fluids between people will lead to infection, he said.
Some of the established modes of transmission, according to Williams are sexual intercourse, intravenous drug use with unsterilised needles, infected blood transfusion and infected mother through her blood system to the baby during pregnancy. Please remember, Williams warns, that HIV infection cannot be spread through shaking of hands, hugging, light kissing, coughing, sneezing, toilet seats, towels, food, or mosquitoes.
Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, former health minister, said the transfusion of unscreened blood in most Nigerian hospitals, maternities and clinics had been one of the serious threats to the fight against the epidemic. He said a study conducted last year at the University of Lagos Teaching Hospital, LUTH, Lagos, showed that four percent of blood donors from seven different hospitals in Lagos were HIV positive.
Yet in many hospitals throughout the country blood continue to be transfused without screening for transmissible infections and diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and syphilis because of the cost of the test kits and the urgency the transfusion often demands, he said.
Only four of the 36 states in Nigeria, Ransome-Kuti said, have laws, making the transfusion of blood without screening an offence. Even then, the former minister of health said the laws are rarely implemented in the four states. He said he was alarmed to observe the appearance in the past 10 years, of many private blood banks, especially in big cities throughout the country from where hospitals and private clinics are supplied.
Another obstacle to the prevention of HIV epidemic in Nigeria is that people with the virus are not ready to be known publicly. Ransome-kuti traced the reason to the fear of a social stigma. Said he: Stigma is a real obstacle to prevention and cure. In places where shame and stigma are the rule, many people simply do not want to know if they are HIV positive even when counselling and testing are offered, and those who know their HIV status rarely share it with others even in confidential and support groups,
He is right. John and several people with HIV have lost their jobs for
disclosing their HIV status. Hence, their withdrawal into reclusive lives.
Julie Hamblin in his book People Living with HIV: the Law, Ethics and
Discrimination urged a special need, a special responsibility,
to honour the rights and needs of these people, since the present
hostility against them now presents unique challenges to effective
policies for preventing the further spread of HIV globally.