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We need to take HIV/Aids conversation out of conference halls

It’s without doubt, that Uganda as a country has made tremendous strides towards creating awareness about HIV/Aids both in schools and communities spearheaded by the government and the different stakeholders.

As a result, we have seen the statistics of HIV/Aids prevalence rates reduce albeit minimally. Right now, Uganda is among the top countries in the world with the lowest number of children born with HIV through Mother to Child Transmission (MTCT).

Uganda is down from having 28,000 HIV infected babies in 2011 to 3,500 in 2016 and has been ranked among the top countries in the world to have the greatest leap towards elimination of MTCT. This was revealed by Uganda AIDS Commission director general Dr Christine Ondoa earlier this year.

However, this does not call for celebration and merrymaking. It only provokes us to devise new and innovative ways on how we can completely wipe out HIV/Aids in the country. If we’re to achieve the ambitious 90-90-90 strategy by UNAIDS that calls for 90% of all people living with HIV knowing their HIV status, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection receiving sustained antiretroviral therapy and 90% of all people receiving anti-retroviral therapy having viral suppression by 2020.

Even then, Uganda still registers 230 HIV new infections a day, something that was highlighted at the end of a UNAIDS Global Review Mission to Uganda. The mission further noted that despite the widely available anti-retroviral therapy, 76 people die of Aids-related causes every single day!

This illustrates the urgent unfinished business of ending Aids, made more worrisome by recent calls to reduce the health and education budgets, that are important sectors for the fight against HIV, which at this critical time, do not augur well for ending the epidemic.

The question now is; what new strategies can we employ to make the above prevalence rates history or mitigate the effects of this deadly scourge?

Reality is, HIV education without a doubt, is one of the most important tools for raising HIV awareness. But, that doesn’t mean you have to be in a classroom to be a part of the fight against HIV. There are plenty of ways to raise HIV awareness in communities.

For example, use of newer forms of information communication technology (e.g. Internet use whether through a computer or mobile phone, SMS, smartphone apps) has grown exponentially over the last few years. The use of information and communications technologies (ICT) complements other Information Education and Communications (IEC) campaigns designed to reach youth.

For example, Reach A Hand, Uganda’s www.sautiplus.org platform has become a one stop centre for information on sexual reproductive health and rights information integrated with HIV/Aids awareness. We are now going ahead to create electronic referrals for young people to go ahead and receive services.

Ministry of Health and UNFPA have also gone into the same direction when they launched www.thezone.ug to provide such information and services, are equally using the internet to promote access to information and services on sexual reproductive health and rights.

While use of new communication technologies has increased, there are still significant opportunities  to be considered regarding access. For this reason, it is important to understand what forms of communication technology populations of interest we’re using, how they access and use the technology, and what barriers and facilitators exist to their use (i.e. cost, internet connectivity, phone capabilities, etc.).

Thought about music and sports as a tool? UNESCO is implementing Protect the Goal campaign in Karamoja that is greatly transforming HIV/Aids awareness through tournaments that are being used to gather young people and when the games are on, information and services on HIV/Aids are being passed on to them.

On the other hand, music being an important part of popular culture especially amongst young people therefore becomes a great platform for discussions on social behavior change issues.

Concerts also become particularly effective because artists like Geosteady, GNL Zamba, Philly Bongole Lutaaya and Maurice Hassa have the opportunity to address large crowds. For such HIV and other SRHR messages to take root, they must be accepted by large numbers of youth, and individuals are more likely to accept these messages if they are relatable to their context

HIV remains a multi-sectoral development issue that continues to impact Uganda’s economic growth and still requires concerted multi-sectoral coordination efforts. If Uganda is to harness the demographic dividend, then the youth must be healthy.

The author is founder/team leader, Reach A Hand Uganda

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