Addressing HIV/AIDS in the midst of a crisis
At 450, the number of people living with HIV in Syria is small. But the stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS is enormous. In an age of advanced medicine, including antiretroviral therapy, people living with HIV face greater difficulty coping with stigma and discrimination than they do maintaining their health, according to health experts in Syria. Stigmatization is particularly entrenched in the health sector.
To make matters worse, the current crisis which has gone on for more than three years now has made access to treatment by people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) more challenging. Almost half of the 300 specialized medical personnel have left the country, and 40% of the 1900 health facilities were either completely destroyed our out of service due to damaged equipment.
- At the moment, the Global Fund is supporting 150 persons living with HIV/AIDS with such sustenance.
- There are fourteen counseling centers, in which one is located in each city center and staffed with a professional counselor who is accessible to each PLWH free of charge.
- Persons living with HIV/AIDS are also receiving enablers which is a about 100$USD for six months which covers basic expenses like transportation to health facilities.
“The incapability of the health sector to identify new infected persons or offer medical support in a very hostile environment poses a major problem and may add to the risk of further spread of the disease among general population”, declared Ghassan Shannan who is the National Coordinator for the Global Fund to Fight TB and HIV/AIDS.
Since 2012, the Global fund has been providing medication for any person suspicious of having HIV/AIDS who comes for help. Each person is provided treatment free of charge and worth in the market 600USD per year for each person living with HIV/AIDS, which is a large sum in Syria which is currently at a 45% poverty rate.
At the moment, the Global Fund is supporting 150 persons living with HIV/AIDS with such sustenance. The support these people get from the Global fund does not only include the medication and the lab works, but also counseling services at specialized centers located in each governorate in the country.
“I never knew that in Syria, I could be helped” said Mohamad who has been diagnosed with HIV last year and now receiving support from the global fund. “I thought I would be abandoned to die given that I cannot afford the high costs of treatment or seek help from family and friends” confirmed Mohamad.
The 150 people supported by the Global Fund like Mohamad are all receiving counseling in addition to their treatment. The psychological support PLWHA acquire is pivotal as it raises their moral and guides them on how to protect their families and friends in a social environment entrenched with stigma. There are fourteen counseling centers, in which one is located in each city center and staffed with a professional counselor who is accessible to each PLWH free of charge.
“PLWHA who come to me are almost devastated and afraid for their fate” said Rana Ayazara who is a counselor I Damascus. “My aim is always to provide my visitors with an ease of mind, and to raise their moral so that they can undertake their treatments and live a normal life” confirmed Ayazara.
These counseling centers are managed by Ministry of Health, but supported by the Global Fund by providing them with equipment for rapid test for HIV and capacity building on counseling mechanisms and even furniture to make the facility more welcoming. The Global Fund sees these centers to be very vital as they have a major effect on infection rates since awareness is a major factor in the reduction of new infections.
“The psychological support I receive helps me to carry on with my life as I feel that I can come to my counselor any time I feel I need moral support” said Mohamad who accesses the center every three months at least and any time he feels dejected.
Prior to the crisis, the Global Fund was aggressively addressing issues related to social stigma faced by PLWHA. Numerous advocacy activities in the past were launched including organizing field trips for national celebrities who volunteer to visit health centers around the country and raise public awareness about the need to address this infectious disease. Workshops with community leaders, and outreach to events with conservative religious figures were also organized in order to spread the message of tolerance.
“People know so little about this disease and this is why we found it to be our job to keep the public abreast of the issues and challenges through every possible channel” confirmed Shannan who ensures that advocacy remains at the heart of the program’s activities.
While the crisis has made it more difficult for the Global Fund to undertake national advocacy initiatives such as celebrity fieldtrips, the global fund is working on expanding its outreach network which is composed of community leaders. Nevertheless, access and reach have now prevailed as major challenges over stigma, of which addressing them has taken on a priority by the Global Fund.
“My message to people is: if you suspect having HIV, don’t be shy, come forward so we can help you” confirmed Shannan
Global Fund is also supporting local health providers financially to reach person living with HIV/AIDS who cannot access the health centers. Delivery of medication and to collect blood samples for AIDS for testing support defuses a lot of the budget constrains felt by these centers.
Persons living with HIV/AIDS are also receiving enablers which is a about 100$USD for six months which covers basic expenses like transportation to health facilities.
“I am so greatful for the support, attitude, and commitment of the Global Fund Team who personally call me and ensure that I am taking my medication and receiving my counseling” confirmed Mohamad who is Shop Keeper.