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US worried about Uganda HIV rates

The US government is concerned about Uganda’s increasing HIV prevalence rate and the fact that the country, hitherto praised for her efforts in combating the pandemic, is the only one in Sub-Saharan African where prevalence is rising instead of dropping.

US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who was on a visit to Uganda on Friday, said while America recognises the strides Uganda made in the 1990s when HIV prevalence dropped from 20 percent to seven percent, prevalence is now rising, with more than half a million new infections every year, according to the new Uganda AIDS Indicator Survey.

“In 1990, Uganda had the best programme in the world. We saw how prevalence could drop drastically. However, I am here because I am worried. New infections are on the rise again,” Ms Clinton said during her visit to Reach-out Mbuya HIV/AIDS Initiative.

The US government is the biggest funder for HIV programmes in Uganda, through its President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The US government recently committed $25m to help Uganda eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission and, today, these services are present in 35 percent of health facilities in Uganda. More than 300,000 Ugandans are receiving treatment through PEPFAR.

With a population of 33 million and one of the highest fertility rates in the world, Uganda faces growing demand for health services. Ms Clinton, who is on an 11-day African tour of Uganda, Ghana, South Sudan, Senegal, Kenya, Malawi and South Africa, said in her meeting with President Museveni, she had expressed America’s concerns over the rising HIV rates in Uganda.

“I am hoping that we can work together to make prevention the focus again. We are going to review our strategy because we want to emphasise what will work,” Ms Clinton said, adding that the US government would also work with Uganda on Ebola and maternal and child health.

Ms Clinton arrived in Uganda on Thursday night. She was welcomed by the minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Henry Okello Oryem, and was driven to State House, Entebbe, where she held closed discussions with President Museveni. Her main agenda in Uganda was to reaffirm the US government’s support to Uganda in the hunt for warlord Joseph Kony. Some 100 US Special Forces are working with the UPDF in the jungles of the Central Africa Republic where the Lord’s Resistance Army leader is believed to be hiding now.

Ms Clinton visited Kasenyi military base, the training base for the UPDF’s Special Forces Group (SFG), where she commissioned the RQ-11B Raven, a small, unmanned aircraft that provides commanders in the field with video images of enemy positions and surrounding terrain. The US has provided 12 of these to the UPDF in Somalia and trained Ugandan soldiers in how to operate them.

Beneficiary's testimony

At Reach-Out Mbuya HIV/AIDS Initiative (ROM), Ms Clinton met 43-year-old John Robert Engole, the first patient in the world to receive anti-retroviral treatment under the PEPFAR project. Engole, a poster face for HIV treatment under PEPFAR, says he was on his death bed in 2004 when his brother told him about ROM. He travelled from Amuria, his home district, to Kampala, with a very low CD4 count and immediately started treatment.

He soon regained strength and, three months later, began working as an adult literacy teacher at ROM. A secondary school teacher, Engole, who said he had been dismissed from his job in Amuria because he was always falling ill, has returned to his teaching career back home. ROM, a faith-based organisation, was started in 2001 to provide care to the urban poor infected with and affected by HIV. The centre, which started with 14 people, now handles 5,000 clients and has four branches: Mbuya, Banda, Nakawa (all in Kampala), and Kasana in Luwero district.

“Clinics like this need resources. We must keep our commitment of funding; this clinic is a model for Africa because it has citizen and community support,” Ms Clinton said.

ROM executive director, Dr Stella Alamo Talisuna, said the organisation, 97 percent of whose activities are funded by the US government, needs to find alternative income generating activities to fund its programmes. ROM currently generates an income of Shs 70m annually from its activities.

Ms Clinton, who said the US government would continue to work with Uganda on issues of the economy, education, health, infrastructure and security, will end her African tour in Ghana where she will attend the state funeral of the country’s departed president, John Atta Mills.


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