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A boy's face painted white with the letters HIV on his forehead
Africa is the continent with the most HIV-positive peopleImage: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo/Getty Images
HealthCameroon

HIV/AIDS in Cameroon: Living positively with the virus

Ngala Killian Chimtom in Yaounde
November 30, 2022

Young Cameroonians living with HIV/AIDS are fighting to end the stigma associated with the virus. Many patients still lack access to lifesaving antiretroviral drugs.

https://p.dw.com/p/4KFdE

Fabiola Yerimah said she had no clue that her 2-year-old cousin was HIV-positive. "When I would ask the mom what he was sick of, the mom would say it is fungi," the 22-year-old told DW.

"So, when I was being tested and was diagnosed with the virus, the first question they asked me was: Is there anybody in the house living with HIV? I said no, but there is my little cousin who is always taking medication, but it is for fungi."

It was only after doctors examined the medicine that it dawned on Yerimah that her little cousin had been living with HIV.

Approximately 500,000 children and adults are living with the virus in Cameroon, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.

Acceptance as the first step

Yerimah said she spent long hours seeking "divine healing" from above. When that did not happen, she contemplated suicide. But when she finally realized the virus had come to stay, she came to terms with her status.

"I am very comfortable, I'm OK with my status, and I have accepted who I am," she said.

She said that since she started taking antiretroviral medication, she has suppressed the virus. "I know when the virus gets to your system, it breaks down your immune system. And if you are not virally suppressed, that is when you get to infect others."

A hand takes medicine from a tray of tablets and puts a few tablets into a pill bottle
HIV infections need to be treated with antiretroviral drugsImage: BARBARA DEBOUT/AFP/Getty Images

If taken as prescribed, HIV medicine reduces the amount of the virus in the person's blood to a low level, which keeps their immune system functioning and helps prevent severe illness.

Usually within six months of starting treatment, most people taking HIV medicine can get their viral load so low that is undetectable. At this undetectable stage, people won't transmit HIV to their partners through sex, according to the US government's HIV site

Culture of silence

Briand Tubuoh has a similar story of frustration and resilience in the face of HIV. He received a positive HIV test at a time when his mother was very ill. 

"I took the results to her, and I told her that they said I should come and confirm in the hospital," the now 22-year-old told DW. "She told me that if she is fine, we would go to the hospital but then, she died." 

He said he didn't tell anyone else or do anything about his positive test for the next few months. Eventually though, he went to the hospital, which confirmed his positive status. 

When he finally decided to open up about his HIV status to his family and friends, their reactions were devastating.

Rejection leads to hope

"I was rejected because of my status and there were times that I was asking questions to myself … why is it that God cannot just take my life; why should I live with this condition? Do I have a future?"

But these questions gave rise to hop, with help from the staff at the hospital where he was being treated.

"They initiated me to ARVs [antiretrovirals] and they counseled me, and I realized that I am not different from other children. Today, I fully accept my status and decided to take my ARVs," said Tubuoh proudly.

Concerns about having children

Like the thousands of other young people living with HIV, Tubuoh and Yerimah are also worried about passing on the virus to their children when they decide to start their families.

It's a valid concern, one shared by Dr. Gilbert Tene, a public health physician and pediatrician in Yaounde who specializes in preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission.

"HIV does not prevent anybody from giving birth, but the risk is that an adult may transmit HIV to the baby," Tene told DW.

A pregnant woman is silhouetted against a curtain
Treatment with HIV therapy can stop those with HIV transmitting the virusImage: Xinhua/IMAGO

Tene advised those living with the virus who wish to conceive to make sure their viral load was at undetectable levels before trying for a baby, something that is done with an HIV viral load test. People whose HIV load is at undetectable levels will still test positive on a standard HIV test, which is why a different kind of test is necessary.

Having an undetectable viral load vastly reduces, but doesn't completely stop, the risk of transmitting HIV during pregnancy and delivery. 

Young people with HIV

Cameroon has seen a sharp decline in the number of children living with HIV. Between 2009 and 2015, for example, the number of children infected fell by just under half, 49%.

But some 33,000 children aged 14 and under still live with HIV in the country. And according to Tene, it's worrisome that only about half of these infected children are taking lifesaving HIV medicine.

The Pediatric-Adolescent Treatment Africa, a network of health providers in sub-Saharan Africa, says it's working to close the treatment gap.

It also hopes to ensure that pregnant adolescent girls and women living with HIV have access to ARVs, and address the social and structural barriers that hinder access to services.

And as for Fabiola Yerimah and Briand Tubuoh, they have both become leading voices within Cameroon, backing the worldwide campaign to end HIV by 2030.

Why is it so difficult to live with HIV in Uganda?

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

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