She said this on Monday, 2nd December, 2019 during her address to the Organization of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS (OAFLA) that took place in Kigali as part of the 20th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA).
The OAFLA meeting attracted First Ladies including; Antoinette Sassou Nguesso from Congo Brazaville, Hinda Deby Itno from Tchad, Aïssata Issoufo Mahamadou from Botswana where different topics were covered including the leadership of African First Ladies in fighting against the HIV epidemic.
Jeannette Kagame said that OAFLA was founded 17 years with the aim of supporting African citizens who were affected and infected by HIV/AIDS particularly women and children.
Since its creation, the focus has been implementing measures designed to support that cause and judging from the milestones that have been reached so far, the measures taken were commendable.
“We are all witnesses of the changes brought about by the activities and sensitization programs such as ‘Free to Shine’ in ending childhood AIDS and keeping mothers healthy.
She explained how Imbuto Foundation, the organization she founded, created programs and projects in line with the country’s vision of development, the ‘Agenda 2063’ and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
She noted that projects such as ‘Family Package’ that was started in a bid to help HIV positive mothers give birth to healthy children 18 years ago has provided many services to HIV positive families and teen mothers.
Also, through this project, HIV positive families are supported by local dispensaries and are offered antiretroviral therapy and medication.
“Through different measures Rwanda implemented, the number of HIV positive mothers giving birth to healthy babies reached 96%. Our programs encourage the youth to learn about reproduction, the available health support and other services and this contributed to the reduction of HIV prevalence among the youth, both in rural and urban areas of Rwanda.”
She said that the joint effort between government institutions and the private sector has contributed to reducing HIV prevalence in the country particularly in Rwanda where new HIV infections reduced by 83% in 2018 while the number of deaths cause by HIV reduced by 82% in the past 20 years.
“Rejoicing about the milestones achieved so far should provide a platform for an in-depth analysis of our journey and the obstacles we have faced including the gender gap which makes it that no matter how much effort we put in fighting HIV, our continent lags behind.”
She also mentioned that the meeting is a time for brainstorming about solutions to tackle the obstacles on the journey by comparing where measures implemented yielded results or not”
Her Excellency, Antoinette Sassou Nguesso, the president of OAFLAD said that the 90,90,90 UNAIDS goal which predicts that by 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy and 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression will not be achieved unless countries join efforts.
New infections reducing despite obstacles
Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of UNAIDS said that in 2018, 38 million people around the world were HIV positive, among them 24.5 were on antiretroviral drugs. A number which she agreed was remarkable.
Currently, 4 in 5 people infected with HIV have been tested and know their status and 2/3 receive antiretroviral medication. In addition, ½ have viral suppression. She also added that even if these results are commendable, the number of new HIV infections and deaths increase as years go by and that the HIV virus becomes more resistive to drugs.
In 2018, more than ½ of HIV positive individuals were among the most HIV-susceptible group of people including sex workers, drug addicts, homosexuals, and transgenders.
“This particular group of people don’t place a lot of importance on testing for HIV, don’t take antiretroviral medication mainly due to the lack of rights supporting them in their countries. It is unacceptable that 6200 teenagers get infected with HIV per week. We have forsaken them and this should not be the case”
Apart from that, at least ½ of children born with HIV do not receive medication and that puts them at the risk of dying before they are even 2 years old.
Currently, the number of teenagers who are infected continues to increase mainly due to the abuse they are subjected to and the lack of knowledge about their reproductive rights.
Focusing equally on sexually transmitted diseases
Her Excellency, Aïssata Issoufo Mahamadou, the First Lady of Niger said that even if the major focus is the HIV epidemics, there needs to be an equal effort toward sexually transmitted diseases as well including Syphilis and Hepatitis B that are claiming the lives of many people in Africa.
“These diseases can be transmitted from mother to child and should be equally fought against.” She added that taking measures against HIV and sexually transmitted diseases as a whole is a better way of eradicating them definitively.
Donald Kaberuka, the chair of the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria said that the fund has recently raised $14.2 billion in activities aimed at reducing HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to be used in the next three years starting in 2020.
The Government of Rwanda committed to contributing $2.5 million to support this cause.
He thanked the First Ladies of countries for their unprecedented contribution in fighting the HIV epidemics that was possible due to the sensitization programs given since 2000.
“Our efforts cannot go unnoticed and we should not slumber during this journey. We have to increase our efforts in this fight so that we won’t be defeated.”
He added that in the past 18 years, most countries in Africa have made remarkable achievements in this fight but that the money invested is not fair to the cause.
He urged the First Ladies of African countries to keep on with the sensitization especially after Niger agreed to allocate 15% of its national budget to the health sector.
Most countries in Africa don’t put forth the health sector despite having enough funds to allocate to it.
Dr. Kaberuka linked that problem to countries which are indebted and therefore allocate a big part of the national budget to paying back debts instead of the health or education sector. That economic situation endangers the lives of African citizens.
In her testimony, Rwandan citizen Muneza Sylvie who is 47 years old admitted that the measures that have been implemented by the Government of Rwanda so far, have yielded results. She said that she learned that she was HIV positive in 1998 after several days of uncurable cough. She went to the hospital and the doctor told her she had tuberculosis.
“I wanted to commit suicide and I wanted to throw myself in front of cars to end my misery but there is a reason to why I am still alive and I owe it all to God. My neighbors stigmatized and did not want to talk or be close to me because they thought I would infect them too”
Mrs. Muneza continued saying that she approached children whose parents were victims of HIV and she founded ‘Igihozo’ association.
They requested for funding to the government because antiretroviral drugs were expensive at the time and the government granted them support where they would get medication for free.
“Treatment for opportunistic infections was very expensive.” She said she was thankful for the support she received and thanked particularly Her Excellency Jeannette Kagame and Imbuto Foundation for providing with free medical insurance.
She also commended the measures that were taken so that infected mothers would give birth to healthy babies. She said it was an important step in the fight against HIV.