Yahya Jammeh, president of Gambia, treating an H.I.V. patient at the State House in Banjul, Gambia. (Photo: A.P.)
By Mohammed Barry
The AIDS pandemic has been one of the most devastating menaces of our time; infecting over 60million people, while shattering hopes and deepening the already existing social inequalities hence making efforts to alleviate poverty and protect human dignity completely difficult globally.And the Gambia is no stranger to the clenches of the AIDS epidemic. Today, over 20,000 Gambians like me; live with HIV.Cognizant of what this means to our nation, one can coherently see the logic behind your Presidential AIDS Cure Program. However, with reference to my past experience with the program, the current state of our national epidemic and the urgent need for effective political leadership in the AIDS response, coupled up with a series of media dispatches. I write this open letter to you with a plea: asking you to stop the Presidential AIDS Cure Program for the sake of our nation.
Exactly four years ago, I was 16years old. When I quitted high school and privately registered for the presidential AIDS Cure Program after living with HIV for almost a decade without any sense of hope. Out of desolation, out of fear of AIDS and out of conviction – I endured the taste of bitter herbs, daily massages and often deserting the comfort of my home for almost a year. Yet, I was adamant I would be cured and once more get a gist of what it means to live without HIV - without pain, without sorrow and without anguish. And, throughout my time at the AIDS Cure Program, I had the rare opportunity of meeting you regularly and learning about your deep sense of interest in making AIDS history in the Gambia. However, like many other people that went through the Presidential AIDS Cure Program; I AM STILL HIV POSITIVE. And this month marks five months since I commenced my anti-HIV treatment (Anti-Retroviral Drugs) in the UK, with an astounding viral load level nearly below detectable. Yet, this does not mean I am cured, nor does it indicate that the virus will never progress without treatment or licenses me to forsake HIV prevention strategies. But it means that I still have a meager level of viral load in my blood which may trigger over time without ARVs. Thus, the absence of such clarity in the Presidential AIDS Cure Program poses a great threat to our lives as people living with HIV and our nation. And this threat is already resonating on our nation's HIV prevalence rates. To call a spade a spade, the AIDS cure program; silenced the nation, hushed the media, shifted national attention away from AIDS, lynched our hopes in ARVs, and to a certain extend phased-out a private HIV treatment center in 2009.
Moreover, although the global HIV prevalence rates are sharply declining specifically across Sub Saharan Africa, with up to 25% in twenty two countries including Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone etc. However, since 2007, unlike our neighboring countries across West Africa, our national HIV 1 prevalence rates have rocketed from 1.4% in 2007 when the presidential AIDS Cure Program commenced to 1.7% in 2011. Making it the third highest national HIV 1 prevalence rates ever recorded after 2004(2.1%) and 2006(2.8%) respectively since 1993.This indeed, indicates a significant decline of safer sexual behavioral practices among Gambians including people living with HIV. Again, In the course of our nation's history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, shed light and give hope to each other specifically in the face of despair and AIDS. And that time is now. And even though we are sick, we are tired, and we need medications but not what will risk our health, our lives, and our nation. At the end of the day, it is about our lives and we ask for nothing but health as tax payers, as Gambians and as people. And even though we are sick; yet we do not deserve to suffer, we do not deserve an added pain but deserve political compassion and moral support in a scientifically backed manner. Today, traditional healers have sprung across the nation, ARVs have become synonymous to harm and in the media HIV is curable despite of increasing infection prevalence rates – this indeed poses a threat to our healthcare system and to our nation. And I believe as most people who are silent; our nation is on the wrong course of making AIDS history.
Lastly, Mr. President – our nation cannot remain silent on such a crucial developmental issue and I have spoken to solicit for your leadership, political commitment and financial backing in order to end AIDS in our nation. But most importantly; I implore you once more, to stop the AIDS Cure program swiftly. And promote the use of ARVs which has scientific backings, tested, and approved globally as the most effective HIV treatment. Hence ARVs can break the back of the epidemic, reverse its impact and build shattered lives. Additionally, as a small nation, Gambia can set precedence in the global AIDS response and serve as a pilot in driving successful response program under your leadership as in the beginning of the millennium. Again, HIV is not just a disease, it is about the lives of 22,000 children, youths, male and female Gambians like everyone else. Thus, I ask you because I know you can do it. I ask because like many Gambians; we believe in your aspirations for the nation. I implore you because you believe in God and because you want the best for our nation. And I finally ask you to retreat from the AIDS cure program.