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Africa

Cameroon's anti-AIDS activists battling stigma and drugs shortage

World AIDS Day seeks to unite people in the fight against HIV, show support for those living with the virus and commemorate those who have died. In Cameroon, there is a shortage of life-saving anti-retroviral drugs.

World AIDS Day (01.12.2015) in Cameroon was preceded by a week of campaign activities including a march through the center of the capital Yaounde to encourage people to take an HIV test.

19-year-old university student Christine Etong told DW that she had taken the test. "HIV/AIDS is an illness just like others. The days when people living with the disease were abandoned by their families are over," she said.

She also said she knew that it was now possible to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of the virus so that children are born free of HIV even if the mother is infected and that people with HIV/AIDS can live for a long time if they take their medication regularly.

Not everybody is as well informed as Etong nor can they can brush off the stigma attached to taking an HIV test so easily. UNAIDS, the world body charged with leading the fight against the disease, said the number of people in Cameroon living with HIV is 660,000 (figures for 2014). However, it admits that this is a conservative estimate and fears that the real figure could be higher because stigma is preventing people from taking the test and finding out their true HIV status.

Blutabnahme für HIV-Test in Südafrika

Cameroon's anti-AIDS activists are campaigning for greater acceptance of HIV testing

Lack of access to treatment life-threatening

Angel Nnanga told DW she was diagnosed as HIV positive nine years ago. She says living with HIV-AIDS is a struggle.

"When I remember that I am living with AIDS, I feel very sad. Besides the stigmatization I have from friends and family members who know I am living with the disease, I am required to follow treatment regularly with the risk of dying if have do not have access to treatment," she said.

Nnanga was referring to the anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) which if taken regularly keep the virus in check and enable those who are infected to lead a relatively normal life. But ARVs are expensive. After the AIDS march through Yaounde, a group of people living with HIV-AIDS met to compare notes about the cost of the life-saving therapy. Nearly half said they couldn't afford to buy the drugs

35-year-old Jules Okoawe told DW he had been living with HIV for six years and his health is worsening .

"I am very worried. It is becoming very difficult, as the years go by, to have access to anti-retrovirals. I have gone to three hospitals but it is only at one particular hospital that the treatment is available and the price has almost doubled," he said.

Symbolbild HIV Medikamente Therapie UN

International agencies say the global response to HIV has averted 30 million new HIV infections and nearly 8 million deaths since 2000

'Cumbersome procedures'

Cameroon's government claims that the number of people receiving free treatment for HIV/AIDS has increased from 28,000 in 2007 to 200,000 in 2015.

But the medical charity Doctors Without Borders says HIV positive patients in many African states are failing to obtain ARVs because of cumbersome procedures, logistical challenges and a lack of resources.

Cameroon's Minister of Public Health, Andre Mama Fouda, said the shortage of ARVs was due to insufficient resources. "Demand was very high and we did not have enough time to buy and stock up with anti-retroviral drugs. Today my ministry is looking for ways of creating a fund to support people living with AIDS," he said.

Without government subsidies and assistance from international aid agencies, HIV positive patients in Cameroon would have to pay $30 (28 euros) for each ARV dose. That is far more than most people can afford.

Fouda says $18 million have been allocated for ARVs in Cameroon's 2015 budget. She hopes she will be able to persuade the government to raise that figure to $26 million for the 2016 budget.

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