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Myths hamper AIDS education programmes

The myths and misconceptions associated with AIDS are hampering efforts aimed at stemming the tide of the pandemic.
Rodrick Mukumbira

Botswana anti-HIV/AIDS campaigners are faced with an uphill task of making the country's youths rid themselves of the myths that surround the spread of the epidemic. A damning 2002 study commissioned by the Botswana government in partnership with the United nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the joint United Nations Programme on Aids (UNAIDS) and Population Services International (PSI) says the country has the highest rate of HIV prevalence in the world with an estimated 39 per cent of the country's I.6 million people being HIV positive.

The study also says that almost 40 percent of the population, aged between 15 and 49 are HIV positive. It says despite the extensive outreach programmes carried out since the first AIDS case was reported in 1985 in Botswana, most youths still lack knowledge about many aspects of how the pandemic is transmitted.

"Many young people believe that HIV is always transmitted from mother to child and a few can accurately trace the progression of HIV to AIDS. This means that they have little understanding of how the virus is linked to AIDS related illnesses," says the study titled “Sexual Behaviour of Young People in Botswana”. The study also concludes that HIV is still not real for the majority of Batswana youths.

Peer educators blame this trend on various myths that have surrounded the identity of the HIV virus and its transmission. In a country where the majority still values its traditional heritage, consulting traditional healers has always run parallel to consulting medical doctors. The Batswana culture does not also place any restrictions on co-habitating between people who are not officially married.

While noting the existence of AIDS, Thabang Masilo, a member of the Dingaka Tsa Setso Association, an organisation that represents the country's over 10 000 traditional healers, says anyone whose sexual partner is dead, even through accidents, has to be cleansed before engaging. "If you have sexual intercourse with someone whose partner is dead, you develop the same symptoms like those of someone suffering from an HIV related illness," he says.

Masilo says symptoms of the disease include losing weight, sweating at night, thinning of the hair, diarrhoea, and susceptibility to opportunistic infections. In a country where cases of abortion within young people are increasing, Masilo also lists having sexual intercourse with someone who has aborted as an issue that would result in the development of AIDS like symptoms. This, he says, also calls for cleansing with traditional medicine. "Not everyone is dying of AIDS in this country. But people are dying because they have abandoned their traditional beliefs," he says. Mpho Moruakgomo, an Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Rights peer educator with Africa Youth Alliance (AYA), says youths are being bombarded with conflicting information that only exacerbate the spread of the pandemic.

AYA is a peer educators grouping found in four countries, namely Botswana, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to spread awareness among the youths on HIV/AIDS and youths' sexual and reproductive rights. The Botswana chapter was founded in 2000. "What is needed is a platform where young people can be given similar information that HIV/AIDS is reality and that it has nothing to do with traditional folklores," Moruakgomo says. But coming up with such a platform is a pipedream at the moment.

He says studies undertaken by his organisation since its inception have revealed that most youths have faith in traditional medicine, an issue he blames on the unreceptive nature of health officials and those suffering from sexually transmitted infections. Even traditional healers can vouch that most of their clients who come seeking medication for sexually related ailments are between the 15 and 24 age group. "The number of young people I see each day continue increasing and it shows that they are running away from hospitals," says Sithembile Moyo, a Zimbabwean traditional healer who plies her trade in the capital, Gaborone's bus rank. "Most of the young people seeking our services would be suffering from sexually transmitted diseases and we have been able to suppress the ailments."

This has also resulted in a boom in their trade and a mushrooming of traditional medicine kiosks. The traditional healers' organisation has also successfully lobbied the government to give work permits to its foreign members.

Although Botswana's hospitals are well equipped, these are proving unpopular with the youths who accuse the nurses of not being accommodative to people suffering from Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Tshepho Molosiwa (21) says he visited a local hospital in June seeking treatment for an STI but gave up after nurses and accused him of spreading HIV.

"They made a joke out of my situation and even invited others from other offices to see that I had an STD," he says. "They said I was promiscuous and that was the result." Molosiwa says he has now made up his mind and would stick to traditional healers where he is not asked numerous questions.

Otsweletse Manadini (19) says she only visits hospitals if she is not suffering from something related to the human sexuality. Health minister, Joy Phumaphi admits that health facilities are not friendly to people suffering from STIs and HIV related ailments. She attributes this to the fact that hospitals are handling more than their capacity because of HIV/AIDS hence the deterioration of their relationship with patients.

"The health delivery sector is under constant pressure because of HIV," she says. "But that doesn't justify the nurses' rudeness towards patients and we will always monitor the situation in hospitals"

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