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Monday, 28 January 2013

New HIV/Aids campaign sparks debate in Uganda

 A billboard in Kampala bearing the controversial message on HIV/Aids. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA 

New HIV/Aids campaign sparks debate

By Agencies

Posted  Saturday, January 26  2013 at  00:00

In Summary
Controversy. While critics say the new strategy promotes promiscuity, the proponents argue that the message is practical.

A new HIV-prevention campaign in Uganda that addresses infidelity is generating debate over the direction the country’s HIV strategy should take.

Billboards erected in various parts of Kampala, by Uganda Cares - a programme of the US NGO Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF) - bears the image of a broken heart and the lines “Cheating? Use a condom” and “Cheated on? Get tested”.

The campaign aims to address the growing vulnerability of couples in long-term relationships to HIV. Studies show that 43 per cent of new HIV infections occur in such unions.

“Let’s be realistic... The HIV infections among married couples are high. So what we are putting across is that if you must cheat, remember to use a condom in order to protect your partner,” Ms Mina Nakawuka, AHF’s regional director of advocacy and public relations told IRIN.

“Those who cheat must use condoms correctly and consistently. Those who feel cheated [on] must take an HIV test. If we don’t do that, we shall not be able to reduce HIV infections in Uganda.”

But the Uganda Aids Commission (UAC), the main government body tasked with managing the country’s HIV response, has ordered the billboards removed on the grounds that they oppose the messages of faithfulness that the government is trying to promote.

“It’s totally unacceptable. It’s a wrong message. They are confusing people on which HIV prevention messages to follow,” said Mr David Apuuli Kihumuro, the director general of the UAC.

“I have talked to them [AHF]. I have directed them to remove all their billboards. They didn’t consult us or the Ministry of Health.”

He added: “We are going to talk to the Uganda Communications Commission to regulate such messages and campaigns in the media and public. They shouldn’t be allowed. We need messages that encourage people to live faithfully and live [HIV] negatively.”

But Ms Nakawuka said: “We have some issues with UAC, which [we] are sorting out.”

Health Minister Christine Ondoa said the national HIV prevention strategy continues to embrace ‘ABC’ - a prescription for Abstinence, Being faithful, and consistent and correct Condom use - as well as an array of biomedical interventions.

Ministry to investigate

She said her ministry would be investigating “why they [AHF] jumped to C”.

The ABC strategy was largely credited for reducing HIV prevalence from 18 per cent in the early 1990s to about six per cent in 2000.

However, since then, prevalence has begun to rise again, going from 6.4 per cent in 2005 to 7.3 per cent in 2011, according to the most recent Aids Indicator Survey.

Despite years of HIV prevention messages, condom use remains erratic.

The government has in the past been accused of bowing to pressure from the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, which encouraged HIV messages to focus more on abstinence and fidelity and less on condom use.

Traditionally, government-backed HIV prevention campaigns targeting couples have focused on less controversial messages such as faithfulness and getting tested.

A 2010 review of couples-focused behavioural HIV-prevention interventions found that while these interventions can reduce unprotected sexual intercourse, there is a need for “stronger theoretical and methodological basis for couples-focused HIV prevention”.

The authors also recommended that future interventions “pay closer attention to same-sex couples, adolescents and young people in relationships”.

The “cheating” billboard has stirred intense debate both on the streets of Kampala and on social media networks; many hold the view that the campaign’s message is tantamount to encouraging infidelity, while others see it as a pragmatic approach to HIV prevention.

“What is their moral motive? I can assure you, it’s absolutely wrong and inappropriate to erect such campaign billboards,” said Ms Christine Shimanya, an associate vicar at Church of Resurrection, Bugolobi Church of Uganda.

Condemnation from church

“If couples have gone off their marriages, the most appropriate intervention is by talking to them, not encouraging cheating. We need Christian post-marital counselling to help them in their morals.”

But a number of Ugandans say the campaign is a welcome shot in the arm for the country’s flagging HIV-prevention efforts.

Ms Florence Buluba, the executive director of the National Community of Women Living with Aids, said the campaign’s emphasis on condom use was necessary.

“If we are to prevent new HIV infections in Uganda, those who cheat and engage in risky sexual behaviours should use condoms, especially if [they] don’t know the other person’s.