At home, Bhekizitha Sithole, a Swazi student at the Stellenbosch University based in Cape Town, South Africa, and currently on TB treatment for extrapulmonary TB, was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship by the John Hopkins University through American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmfAR). It was his first time to attend the International AIDS conference in Washington DC. Like many other delegates, he was elated to be greeted by AIDS 2012 opening ceremony marked by the presence of great people like veteran actress Sharon Stone and other United Nations and political figures. This year’s conference has attracted about 24,000 registered delegates and about 2000 accredited journalists.
For Sithole, living in a community surrounded by HIV stigma, TB stigma is an automatic reality because it is associated with HIV. He has been on TB treatment for the last seven months and has two more months to go.
“There are challenges of diagnosis because it is done late…and before it is done; people undergo a lot of suffering during that waiting period. I was in pain for three weeks before I was diagnosed. I had developed an infection which they were trying to treat but could not get diagnosed early,” says Sithole.
In Swaziland, one of the most affected countries by the HIV epidemic with high infection rates is grappling with having a systematic approach to combating the virus. The hospitals in Swaziland would treat patients in different wards without considering the possibilities of co-infections.
As he moved around the exhibition booths and networking zones at the conference, he met Teresa Rugg, the Director of TB Photovoice. Rugg shared how photos are transforming the way people look at TB in various countries.
In response, Sithole saw the need to take the message back to his community, a traditional country steeped in controlled rule which makes it difficult for people to open up. “We need such kinds of interventions and we shall contact colleagues in South Africa to see how we can extend this,” says Sithole.
The project works in Kenya, Mexico, Thailand, Brazil, South Africa and the United States. TB Photovoice works with communities impacted by tuberculosis using photos, personal stories, and support groups to elevate their concerns and address the root causes of the disease.
And one of the political leaders present from Zambia at the AIDS 2012 is Zambia’s Deputy Minister of Community Development, Mother and Child Health, Jean Kapata. The deputy minister, who is Zambia’s delegation leader, notes that: “Zambia can learn more on managing HIV/AIDS from this year’s 19th International AIDS conference.”
She notes that a number of countries have scored success in tackling HIV/AIDS and therefore the conference is a good platform to learn from the countries, adding that although Zambia has made tremendous strides in the management aspect of the pandemic, there is more that can be done.
As Uganda’s frontline noted AIDS activist Milly Katana, puts it, the AIDS 2012 has significantly energized people. “We can turn around the epidemic because everyone is almost saying the same thing and there are no dissenting voices,” she said at press briefing for AVAC - Global Advocacy for HIV Prevention and AmFAR.
From Zambia alone, 78 delegates are representing the country at the conference. From the lessons learnt at individual, governmental and organizational levels, it is envisaged that the world, through the 27,000 delegates present at the AIDS 2012 conference, will turn the tide and conquer AIDS, TB and malaria.
(The author is a noted Zambian journalist and serves as the Executive Director of the Media Network on Child Rights and Development (MNCRD). He has earlier worked with The Monitor and the National Mirror in Lusaka specializing in child rights, HIV, health, environment and human rights. He has also worked as a Correspondent for the Voice of America (VOA). He is the former Chairperson of the Zambian Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa - MISA)