"Maybe it is an area we underlooked but we are realizing we urgently need to do something."
The problem of stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS and society's attitude to it is still a big question that needs an answer, according to the head of the Uganda AIDS Commission (UAC), Dr. Daniel Byamukama.
He said stigma can be more lethal than the virus, and he is convinced that without addressing stigma, we shall never end HIV in Uganda.
Byamukama (left) appreciated the old fighters of the HIV response, but observed they were not aware that stigma "would come and sabotage us".
"I am grateful for the leadership of Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV/AIDS (UNYPA) for championing the cause of fighting stigma and making sure young people living with HIV are liberated and are living positively," he said.
"Maybe it is an area we underlooked but we are realizing we urgently need to do something, especially for young people, to ensure we end stigma and discrimination. Be assured that we are behind you."
Last week, UNYPA launched its sixth annual Y+ Beauty Pageant, a campaign geared towards ending stigma and discrimination among young people living with HIV in Uganda.
The unveiling of the 2019-2020 edition themed Peers making it happen was the first of a series of activities in the build-up to the November 22 grand finale in Kampala.
The unveiling was punctuated by entertainment, fashion shows and a talk show.
Some of the young people who attended testified to have been empowered on issues to do with the epidemic, especially on how to protect themselves.
'They wanted my assurance'
Speaking at the event, Byamukama cited an incident in Jinja when he went to officiate at an interschool's debate. After delivering his remarks, some six students followed him, clearly timid and bothered.
After meeting them one at a time, the Ugandan AIDS Commission boss soon found out that all of them were HIV-positive but each of them did not want the other to know or even the school to know. They looked terrified.
"Each one asked me if it was worth to stay in school - that if they grow up it is possible to become a doctor like me or an engineer or lawyer," he revealed.
"They wanted my assurance. Through talking to them, I realized they were facing a challenge and we needed to do something for the young people living with HIV. That's why I applaud UNYPA."
The chief guest, Dr. Maxime Houinato, who is also the UN Women country director hailed UNYPA for the Y+ beauty pageant innovation that aims at distigmatising the young population.
Uganda is one of the countries that were highly affected by AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, but successfully gained international reputation for the significant reduction of the scourge where the prevalence fell from 18% in the late 1980s to as low as 6.4 in 2005.
However in 2012, the prevalence rose to 7.3%, meaning Uganda is one of the countries in the world where the prevalence is rising despite various interventions being implemented.
According to the health ministry statistics, 575 adolescents and young women between 15 to 24 years in Uganda get infected with HIV on a weekly basis.
Nicholas Niwagaba, the UNYPA executive director, said UNYPA is pushing for young people living with HIV to live healthy and productive lives.
The Y+ beauty pageant is geared towards ending stigma and discrimination by empowering young people with knowledge and advocacy skills that enable them lead the fight against the stigma.
Niwagaba seeks to crown brave, open minded and passionate young people who later support fellow young people to meaningfully engage and participate in programmes regardless of their HIV status.
"Young people have continuously faced frustrations from stigma and discrimination from their families, guardians, potential employers and the general public. This affects their uptake of HIV services at health facilities and fear to disclose due to violence and rejection."
Lillian Mworeko from the International Community of Women Living with HIV Eastern Africa (ICWEA) regretted that society is regressive to persons living with HIV.
Her suggestion is that to overcome HIV and AIDS-related challenges, "we need to create massive awareness about HIV and AIDS using innovative means that will capture the attention of the public and drive the information home".
"Once this is done, people living with HIV will be more comfortable opening up so that the public is aware of the epidemic and is able to take precautionary measures to curb its spread," she said.
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