“Good health helped to revive my hope. I would like to tell other young people that living with HIV is not the end of life. The most important thing is to ensure to take your medication and treat infections as early as they emerge.”
Those are the powerful words of 16-year-old Halima, whom I met back in May while visiting a UNICEF partner – PASADA – working on HIV and AIDS in Dar es Salaam. Energetic and courageous, Halima shared with me her very touching and inspiring story about living with HIV and her positive journey through adolescence, thanks to the psychosocial support that she has received from PASADA. PASADA is a faith-based organization that supports 20 health facilities in Dar es Salaam, implementing various HIV testing and counselling (HTC) strategies, and referring HIV-positive clients for care, treatment and support, according to national norms and guidelines.
Halima told me that she did not know that she was born and living with HIV until she was 10-years-old when she developed some skin conditions and started to being stigmatized at school by her teacher and students, who used her appearance to assume that she was HIV positive. Halima was close to tears as she told me about this painful memory: “I felt lonely, I did not have friends to eat or play with, and most of my fellow students stigmatised me by saying that I was HIV infected, this upset me, as by then I did not know if it was true that I had HIV.”
She told me that as she was growing up, she started to question why her mother was taking her every month to the PASADA clinic for a check-up and to refill medications. Eventually, through the counselling and HIV disclosure process, Halima was told at the clinic that she was living with HIV. Her mother confirmed that this was true and said she had kept it a secret because she felt Halima was still too young to know. Halima explained that, for some time, she felt angry with her mother for not revealing the situation to her earlier. After counselling and interactions with other children who faced similar experiences, she has forgiven her mother. Since then, both Halima and her mother love and help each other to live healthy lives.
I learned however that despite all the challenges with being an HIV-positive adolescent, Halima never stopped attending the PASADA care and treatment centre, which has been helping her to adhere to treatment and to receive psychosocial support. She told me happily and confidently that she is on HIV treatment and that this is keeping her healthy.
Recently, Halima joined a newly-established post-test teen club at PASADA where she has met other adolescents like her and she has never felt lonely again. I asked her what the teen club sessions are like and she told me she has learnt about sexual and reproductive health issues and about the importance of adhering to medications. PASADA also provides therapeutic play through the teen clubs to adolescents living with HIV to help them feel safe, loved, and respected.
The issue of disclosure of HIV status to children and adolescents by providers and parents is a big challenge globally, and Tanzania is no exception. Parents are sometimes not willing to disclose their children’s HIV status, due to guilt and fear of stigma and discrimination. PASADA recognises that disclosure is very important to children and adolescents. They sensitize parents and caregivers on the issue, such that primary school age children are told their HIV status incrementally to accommodate their cognitive skills and emotional maturity, in preparation for full disclosure.
Dar es Salaam has an estimated HIV prevalence of 4 % among youth (6.3% females; 1% males). Halima is one of the estimated one-quarter of HIV-positive youth (15-24 years) in Tanzania residing in Dar es Salaam. AIDS is the leading cause of death among adolescents in Africa. The “All In” initiative to #ENDadolescentAIDS is a platform for action and collaboration to inspire a social movement to drive better results with and for adolescents through critical changes in programmes and policy. UNICEF and partners work together in order to accelerate reductions in AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections among adolescents in Tanzania.
Gloria Macha works with UNICEF Tanzania.
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