World AIDS Week 2009 whose climax fell on the 1st of December, World AIDS Day, was marked at the University of Buea by a conference held at the university’s sumptuous Amphi 250 on the 2nd of December. In attendance were members of the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences, staff from other faculties and dignitaries from outside of the university. The Master of Ceremony was Princewill Mukwelle Aduma of the Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV), Buea.
The very mix of participants was both note-worthy and colorful. The actors were Dr Nde Fon, Head of the Department of Public Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Chief Dr. Ndeso Atanga who is a baron of the Faculty and Dr Weledji Elroy Patrick, an Edinburgh-trained surgeon and pioneer lecturer of the Faculty who represented the dean of the Faulty at the conference. Also participating were Dr Pascal Nji Atanga who coordinates the Regional Technical Programme of HIV AIDS in the South West Region and Dr Chuwanga John, South West Regional Delegate of Public Health. There was, of course, the significant presence of students from the Faculty.
After prayers by Chief Dr Ndeso Atanga and the intonation of the national anthem by Miss Mengot, a student of the Faculty of Health Sciences, the welcome word was delivered by Dr Weledji on behalf of the Dean of the Faculty. Dr Weledji drew the attention of the audience to that fact that HIV AIDS which used to be thought of as a foreign disease affecting only the homosexual community is today a sad reality here in Africa, including Cameroon. He said screening is important because knowing ones status makes treatment possible and easier.
South West Regional Delegate for Public Health, Dr. Chuwanga John who gave a talk on the topic,
Dr Chuwanga recognized that not everyone has access to good health. Nonetheless, the state had a duty to provide it, he said. At the level of health care providers such as doctors, nurses and midwives, for example, the rules of good conduct must be observed. But then for the health providers to carry out their duties properly, patients must be cooperative, he added.
The regional delegate urged his listeners to desist from blind self surrender to religious professionals in the hope of being healed, to the detriment of the more reliable medical facilities placed at their disposal by surer providers such as the state. He pointed out that many who have blindly surrendered themselves to the clergy have returned disappointed, with some even dying. That is why he strongly condemned patients` rejection of blood donation for religious reasons, even when blood is in short supply and therefore needed urgently.
Speaking on the topic: “Current trends of HIV AIDS in the South West Region”, the HIV AIDS Technical Coordinator for the region, Dr. Atanga Oscar, gave a graphic and illustrated snapshot of the pandemic in the region, while placing his account within the national context. He started by pitching the national prevalence rate in 2004 at 5.5 per cent, adding that the most affected age group in that year was 15-49 years. About 560 000 persons were found to be infected with HIV AIDS, with some 62 000 being on Anti-Retroviral (ARV) drugs by the end of 2008.
Looking at the prevalence rate per region, Dr Atanga noted that of the ten regions in Cameroon, the North West registered the highest infection rate, standing at 8.5 %. The infection rate for other regions stood as follows: East 8.6 , South West 8.0, Adamawa 6.9, Littoral 5.5, Centre 4.7, Far North 2.0 and the North, 1.7 %. Asked what accounted for the North West Region heading the league table, Dr Atanga outlined a number of possible reasons. These were a high population density, the high rate of matrimony including polygamy, poverty, traditional beliefs and an age-old custom which led to patients moving back “home” when ill.
Speaking specifically about the South West Region, he noted that the prevalence rate is higher in women than in men. The female curve was noticed to have peaked at the age 25-29 while that of the men peaked at 45-49. It was also noticed that the older the person, the greater the risk of infection. Regarding voluntary testing and counseling, the doctor observed that whereas the number of tested ante-natal care women stood at 14 274 in 2006, the following year it rose to 20 316 and in 2008 it climbed even further to 21 328. The conclusion on that point is that more and more pregnant women have been tested each year since 2006.
Dr. Atanga noted that in 2005 there were 28 children on ARVs in the South West Region while by this year, 2009, the number had risen to 207. Concerning coverage, he said there were 15 treatment centres in the South West Region with the bulk being found in Fako and one in Manyu. The Limbe hospital is the biggest of the centres, followed by the KumbaDistrict hospital.
One disturbing trend evident in the study was that the infection rate was more pronounced among married women than among single women. The doctor said this phenomenon could be due to the fact that the woman’s vagina by nature has a surface area ten times as large as that of the man’s penis, a factor which made the woman more vulnerable. It was also observed that sexual intercourse among young women started too early in life. Combination therapy and combination prevention were said to be effective with a strong recommendation made that more people should have access to HIV information; in other words, sensitization. More people should also go for treatment and all should learn to wait longer before having sex, instead of rushing into it and being exposed. For married people, fidelity is, of course, the watch word. The regional coordinator said it is important for monogamous partners to have themselves tested because it should not be taken for granted that they are free of infection.
Speaking on the theme: “HIV AIDS among Cameroonian youths”, Dr Nde Fon observed that there was promiscuity on the part of female youths who believed they must meet “standards of fashion”. Some of the instances of vulnerability cited by the doctor included provocative dressing, non-use of the condom as a result of shyness, the urge to have sex for fear of losing a partner and the search for sexual satisfaction as a result of low performance rate by sexual partner. Other factors mentioned included exposure to inappropriate information technology numerous all-night parties in which coming into direct physical contact leads to sexual intercourse, alcoholic intoxication, trans-generational sex (sugar daddies and sugar nannies), drug abuse, peer pressure and the super hero complex in which the person concerned wants to be like someone else.
Drawing from a parallel study conducted on Nigerian youths of the age group 16-35, Dr Nde Fon noted that 62% of the youths surveyed had their first sexual intercourse before attaining the age 10-28, with the mean being 9. Only 36.4 % of those studied used condoms during their first experience, and a staggering 20 % never used condoms at all.
The doctor recommended that HIV AIDS be seen as a public health problem and a psychiatric issue. He argued that since the pandemic has significant mental health implications, when it comes to treatment, mental health should be included. He supported his own recommendations with those made by Professor Tih Pius, Head of the Health Services of the Cameroon Baptist Convention. The professor advocates youths joining clubs and pledging abstinence as a means of preventing HIV AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. He also proposes the fight against poverty through the creation of job opportunities. Dr Nde Fon urged both males and females to carry condoms in their bags and strongly asked for a dressing code to be prescribed for both boys and girls.
A lively debate was staged on the theme: “Is Africa`s greatest problem AIDS or poverty?” Moderated by Chief Dr Ndeso Atanga, the debate had as speakers for the pros, Tamajong Evans and Ngwese Franklin. For the cons were Sochi Joel and Obale Armstrong. The debaters were all students in the Faculty of Health Sciences. After the heated debate, both sides were declared winners.
Closing the conference, Edwin Ngwana, the Social and Cultural Affairs Adviser to the Regional Governor who represented the governor warned that if the people of the province do not join forces to fight HIV AIDS, the pandemic will join forces to fight them. “Now go out into the world and demonstrate this!” he urged.