By Tom Gwebayanga and Conan Businge
At Nabwigulu Primary School in the eastern district of Kamuli, 13-year-old Charles Okurut has opted to drop out of school to avoid being a daily subject of gossip among his peers for being HIV-positive.
“I was frustrated. My friends ran away from me. They even abandoned the desks at which I would sit,” Okurut says.
“In addition, I always have to scratch myself to the extent of the skin peeling off. My skin itches badly,” he laments.
Okurut’s ordeal started in April when he developed a skin rash as a reaction to the ARVs he got from Kamuli Hospital. Besides, he is malnourished and his guardian cannot afford to provide him with the right meals.
He catches a cold in the morning and evenings, has general body weakness, coupled with excessive throwing up.
Okurut says he wants to study and become a teacher so that he can help pupils with the same plight.
His elder sister, Tapenensi Nansubuga, says after abandoning school, Okurut now roams the village, climbing trees as his growing hobby out of desperation.
It is believed Okurut contracted the virus from his parents, who died of HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s. Okurut tested HIV-positive last year and was put on Septrin tablets, before he started ARVs, following the fall of his CD-4 count.
“He may improve but the extent of the rash is such that there is need for serious consultations,” says Salamuka, the district chairman of the forum for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Ruth Mutoya, a child counsellor and psychologist, says: “Okurut is suffering with identity issues and is now being stigmatised. He needs love and affection.”
She says changing school for Okurut will not be enough without addressing his treatment, counselling and feeding.
Okurut is one of the 1.2 million HIV/AIDS orphans in Uganda, according to Ugandan National Bureau of Statistics estimates.
An estimated 150,600 children are living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda today. More 27,000 children are estimated to be born with HIV/AIDS and 50% of them are expected to die before their second birthday.
Reports also show that 75% will most likely die before their fifth year of life.