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On a sunny Friday afternoon, as we approach the compound of Katosi Community Health Centre II in Mukono district, a group of people breaks into song and dance to welcome us.

This group includes children, mothers, pregnant women and young and old men infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Officials of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) have brought journalists here to see some of their interventions to boost the fight against HIV/AIDS. Today is a clinic day, and many have come for screening and refilling their drugs quota, as well as other services offered here – such as prevention of mother-to- child transmission (PMCT) and counselling.

Amongst the visitors is Rose Nambi, a 31-year-old mother of four boys. Nambi and her seven-year-old son, Lucky, are HIV positive. Her other three sons, including one-year-old Joseph Mukisa are negative. Nambi got to know her HIV status after her husband, Felix, died of AIDS in 2007.

“He had severe cough, chest pain and breathing problems but when he died at Mulago, they told me it was AIDS. I got so scared and fell critically ill thereafter but I didn’t tell anyone about my late husband’s problem,” Nambi says.

While admitted at Ntenjeru hospital, Nambi was screened twice for HIV and the tests turned out with negative results, yet her health continued to deteriorate.

Worst fears

In 2008, she went for screening again (but this time at Katosi outreach centre) where doctors confirmed her worries, that she was indeed HIV positive. She was straightaway started on ARVs because her CD4 count had already dropped. At first she feared to take the drugs, thinking that she was about to die.

“I kept them (ARVs) for three days,” she recalls.

It took the assurance of a family friend, whose daughter was also on the lifesaving drugs, for Nambi to start on hers. She has had no regrets, and she says her life is almost normal. With courage gathered, she took all her sons for HIV screening. Lucky was found positive and also put on treatment.

“He (Lucky) easily takes his drugs because he sees me taking mine,” says Nambi, who gave birth to Joseph Mukisa last year with her Kenyan boyfriend. Mukisa is HIV negative because Nambi took advantage of the PMCT facilities availed at Katosi health centre.
Nambi is one of 188 HIV-positive people receiving ARVs at Katosi.

The drugs and related HIV/AIDS services here are free, thanks to the support channelled through IRCU, which brings together Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Orthodox, Seventh Adventists and Born-Again Christian faiths. In Nakisunga and Ntenjeru, ICRU supports up to 2,300 people through interventions, HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment.  Officials say AIDS has claimed 138 lives in the two counties in the past two months.

Start-up grants

Through faith-based organizations, the IRCU gives financial assistance ranging from Shs 50m to Shs 3bn, to projects that support the lives and livelihoods of people affected by HIV/AIDS. The money is channelled through big hospitals like Mengo hospital and community based health units like Kyetume Health Center III to avail HIV/AIDS-related services.

However, in their latest five-year plan, IRCU have included a component that provides start-up money for individual orphans and other people rendered vulnerable by HIV. Jackie Katana Beinomugisha, programme manager for HIV/AIDS and public health at IRCU, says the start-up grants have so far made a significant impact.

Beinomugisha remarks that ICRU’s interventions concentrated on providing education alone but after graduating from tertiary institutions, orphans would remain unproductive since employment is not readily available.

“But with start-up capital, their impact is almost as instant in the competitive job market,” she says.

Self-employed widows, widowers and other vulnerable groups qualify for the grant kits. For instance, Mary Nambi received Shs 200,000 to boost her food vending business in Katosi trading centre. As a result, Nambi gets enough money for her family’s basic needs. In other cases where money can’t provide lasting solution, heifers have been given out and changed lives significantly.

To extend the programme to forty-three districts in the country, ICRU has received funding from USAID to a tune of $30m for five years. Beinomugisha says they have also trained three thousand religious leaders to “spread the message of behavioural change.”

Health officials and experts on HIV/AIDS attribute the rise in infection rates to complacency amongst the population.  But they also partly blame the way anti-HIV/AIDS campaign messages are packaged, saying some have become boring after being hummed over the years.

Previously, in the ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condom) approach, much emphasis was placed on the last option. But after getting tips on the pandemic, IRCU now wants religious leaders to urge their flock on the first two. There is also a component for sex workers who ply their trade at Katosi trading centre, just next to the landing site.

On the day we visited, fifteen prostitutes based at Bbanga lodge, organized by a community public health worker, received free condoms. Early this month, officials organized a workshop where the sex workers were counselled and screened voluntarily.

“Results of their tests were not as alarming,” an official disclosed, adding that majority of them insist that their clients use condoms.

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