Stigmatization of People Living with HIV (PLHIV) has really not been on the decline but rather, made a fast progression as a result of the ineffectiveness of the GAC ACT 2015. PLHIV suffer from low self-esteem, as a result of being treated with condemnation, disgust by healthcare providers, family and the society at large while others however undergo self-stigmatization.
At the recent National HIV&AIDS Research Conference (NHARCON) 2018 organized by GAC on 8th-11th May held at the Accra International Conference Centre (AICC), Nana Otuo Siriboe II, the chairman of the conference in his opening remark stated that “As a traditional ruler, I have identified stigma as a major challenge in the response to HIV”. He then further pledged his personal support to use his office to help provide a positive response to HIV.
HIV Patients can be discouraged from continuously visiting the pharmacy for their drugs because of perhaps stigmatization from the pharmacist, dispensing technician or any other healthcare provider.
In her account, a 52 year-old patient once stated that she had decided to give up on her treatment process because she was being seen in the hospital as a street woman who had betrayed her husband. This, according to her, made her feel like she was being labeled a prostitute.
At the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital (KBTH), HIV patients have a dedicated pharmacy where they are exclusively attended to. This minimizes the fear of public stigmatization and also creates accessibility for the already huge number of PLHIV’s seeking treatment.
According to a Medical laboratory scientist at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital’s Fevers unit, the unit used to have a specialized private section for the rich and prestigious who visit for healthcare. This was done to protect their image. He however stated that, such special services do not officially exist anymore although some rich patients still book for private sessions with some doctors on non-clinic days. In spite of the massive awareness and educational efforts invested over the years in order to reduce the stigma associated with carrying the virus, people still feel stigmatized to be identified with it.
Three HIV infected patients, Kojo, Kwame, and Adwoa, who were interviewed on the issue of stigmatisation, had the following to say;
‘’For me, I am aware of the stigmatization, however, for my condition it’s only my mother who knows about it and I do not talk about it with others. I have been living with the condition for the past 3 years. The medical doctor who attended to me, cautioned me not to tell anyone except for my mother who already knows. Even if I go to another hospital, I should not mention that I have HIV but if the attending clinician found out himself, that’s okay’’. Asked whether he had felt stigmatized in any form by dispensers at the HIV treatment centre he said, ‘’So far, they have been good at their work and they interact well with us”.
On the account of Kwame, he said ‘’ since I was diagnosed with the condition, only my senior sister and mother are aware. No one else knows about my condition and so far I have not had any stigmatization encounter with the counsellors and dispensers here at Korle-Bu’’.
‘’Since I was diagnosed with the condition, Korle-Bu has been my treatment centre and I have not experienced any stigmatization issues with the dispensers. The only problem I have is with my grandchildren. I am always afraid to carry them because I’m afraid I may transmit the virus to them although I’m aware that’s not possible. Perhaps it’s my perception or maybe my conscience.’’ said Adwoa.
Whilst some patients feel stigmatized by health workers and the society, others undergo self-stigmatization. This group of people (self-stigmatized), feeling ashamed and embarrassed with their condition, mask their faces with sunglasses and large hats in their bid to conceal it, when they come for healthcare or even dissociate themselves from their families.
According to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Team on AIDS (Joint Team) in 2016 supported Ghana in achieving the 90-90-90 targets and championed the passing of the Ghana AIDS Commission Act of 2015 (GAC Act) by the National Assembly on 18 October 2016. Amongst the provisions made by the Act is the provision for anti-stigma and discrimination as well as the protection of the rights of PLHIV. How much of this has been flouted so far? Has there been any punitive measures taken against those (including health care providers) who discriminate against HIV patients seeking healthcare? Are the HIV patients who are duly represented by this Act of law fully aware of their rights? These are thought-provoking questions to ponder upon.
In a study conducted to ascertain the perception of Ghanaian Pharmacists towards people living with HIV/AIDS, only 17% of pharmacists had favourable attitudes towards them.
Pharm Elaine Adovi Awumee of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital (KBTH) stated that Ghana is nowhere near the anti-stigmatization campaign. She acknowledged that, although formerly, Ghana was doing well due to the public education and campaign, the country is back to its initial position were stigmatization against HIV/AIDS patients is still a yet-to-be-won battle. “The stigmatization is so obvious, even colleagues with whom I worked during my first job placement thought I had been infected because I helped and counselled HIV/AIDS patients.” She added.
Pharm Awumee iterated that, to help stop or reduce the stigmatization, the country would need to re-visit its campaign against public stigmatization.
Mrs Sabina Ansah a Health Educator/Counsellor, and anti-retroviral drug dispenser at the Pharmacy unit of KBTH, had this to say, ‘’I have been dispensing this drug for the past 6 years. Among the health practitioners I have come to work with, we do not stigmatize HIV patients, and as a way of making them feel loved, we take their gifts when they offer them’’. She however admitted that patients do think otherwise of them as a patient once confessed, ‘’I thought if I give you a gift you will not take it because of my condition”. She will then reassure the patients by telling them she is equally a human being and their condition was just like any other infection.
Life should not end after testing positive for HIV. Deliberate efforts should be made towards improving the lives of all PLHIVs in the country as the President for PLHIV, Emmanuel Beluzebr Suukure rightly said. Let’s join the fight against stigmatization. Let’s advocate for a more effective policy and offenders should not be allowed to go scot free. Efforts should be intensified to build capacity of religious and traditional leaders as well as healthcare givers for community mobilization and advocacy against all forms of social exclusion as well as strengthening solidarity among PLHIVs for collective action.
Disclaimer: While every attempt has been made to verify the information provided in this report story, any reference to any person, organization or business whether living or dead is purely coincidental. In as much as the accounts of the patients use in this story is real and accurate, the names given to the patients are not their real given names but for reference only.
Promise E. Nukunu,
Prince O. Sarpong
Prof. Major (Rtd) George Asare