Witnessing the front lines of the AIDS battle in Uganda

ug2_LINDA.jpgThe AIDS situation in Uganda is one of the better in sub-Saharan Africa, with an infection rate of 7 percent, a far cry from the rates of 20, 30, or even 40 percent found in some areas of southern Africa. The Elisabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, with whom Tay’s Aunt Linda has been for four years, is on the cutting edge of preventing mother-baby HIV/AIDS transmission in Uganda and 17 other countries. But there are numerous fronts to this battle and Elisabeth Glaser is only one of many games in town. On Friday morning, an opportunity arises to see one of these other organizations in action, and we take it.

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The AIDS situation in Uganda is one of the better in sub-Saharan Africa, with an infection rate of 7 percent, a far cry from the rates of 20, 30, or even 40 percent found in some areas of southern Africa. The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, with whom Tay’s Aunt Linda has been for four years, is on the cutting edge of preventing mother-baby HIV/AIDS transmission in Uganda and 17 other countries. But there are numerous fronts to this battle and Elizabeth Glaser is only one of many games in town. On Friday morning, an opportunity arises to see one of these other organizations in action, and we take it.

The Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS Initiative is based out of Our Lady of Africa Church in one of Kampala’s many poor, outlying neighborhoods. We find the place buzzing with activity, people darting around, smiling, and getting ready to start another day of fighting AIDS in Africa. We are shown a video, given a quick tour of the grounds (including an HIV-positive women’s sewing cooperative and crafts/homemade beadwork shop), and then drive off to see a couple of Reach Out’s neighborhood clinics in operation.

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What follows is extraordinary. Reach Out’s holistic approach to combating the AIDS virus means treating “body, family, mind, and community,” all at once and with equal importance. At the Kinawataka Community Center, in the heart of a muddy, garbage-strewn slum, a simple but new cluster of buildings is testament to Reach Out’s broad-minded mission. This means more than just a medical clinic, well-stocked pharmacy, and clinical laboratory where HIV-positive patients get treated for free and given some of the latest Anti-Retroviral (ARV) drugs—which, by itself, would be astonishing. But there is also an adult literacy workshop, a microfinance unit to give small loans for HIV-positive clients to start businesses, and a circle of HIV-positive clients/community support mobilizers who help their neighbors and community members adhere to the strict drug regimen required by ARV treatment.

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Aunt Linda, who has seen many programs, is thoroughly impressed, and Tay more-so. Ten years ago, in The Gambia, she says, many Africans didn’t even admit the AIDS virus existed, believing all kinds of rumors that it was some foreign conspiracy to justify poking, prodding, and poisoning them with strange drugs—or simply vengeance from the Gods. Of course things are different across the continent, but a lot has happened in the last decade, and to see so much positive, community-based action and support among hundreds of HIV-positive patients is amazingly progressive.

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At the next site, in the Banda neighborhood, we find a medical clinic inside the church itself. A nun distributes ARV drugs in the pews, the pulpit is buried under patient records where a volunteer makes announcements, and the back room floor is covered with a mobile pharmacy. Behind the church, under a shade tree, villagers line up to get tested by a clinician for the virus.

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Aunt Linda is excited to see which elements of Reach Out she can implement in her own work of forming support groups for HIV-positive children. Tay is excited for her upcoming clinical position in Accra, and she eagerly talks to the nurses, doctors, and clinicians we encounter. I’m excited to find a great story to write about—a positive AIDS story out of Africa!

The next day, we squeeze in as much quality time with Linda & company as we can (including a matinee of “The Da Vinci Code” at the Garden City Mall — yes, that’s right, we’re still in Africa), before hopping a cab to Entebbe International Airport and a flight to West Africa (including an overnight layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia).

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The AIDS situation in Uganda is one of the better in sub-Saharan Africa, with an infection rate of 7 percent, a far cry from the rates of 20, 30, or even 40 percent found in some areas of southern Africa. The Elisabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, with whom Tay’s Aunt Linda has been for four years, is on the cutting edge of preventing mother-baby HIV/AIDS transmission in Uganda and 17 other countries. But there are numerous fronts to this battle and Elisabeth Glaser is only one of many games in town. On Friday morning, an opportunity arises to see one of these other organizations in action, and we take it." />