Victor Olaoye Omoseye is the national coordinator, Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWHAN). In this illuminating interview, Omoseye, a graduate of University of Lagos and Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, speaks on challenges facing people living with HIV/AIDS in the country, as well as what the federal government can do to reduce the burden of the disease in the country. Excerpts:
Tell us what NEPWHAN is all about.
The Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWHAN) is the umbrella body of all persons living with HIV in Nigeria. Our vision is to strengthen the capacity of people living with HIV/AIDS in the country so that they will be able to contribute to the national response. We advocate for the welfare and interest of people living with HIV. We basically promote universal access to treatment and ensure that everyone living with HIV has equal access to treatment without any form of bias, prejudice or discrimination.
Can you share with us how you discovered you had HIV?
I studied Project Management at the University of Lagos, before I proceeded to do my postgraduate degree at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife Osun State. I discovered I had HIV when I was 21 years old and an undergraduate in the university. I never had any symptom or sign. But since there was a lot of awareness around that time on HIV/AIDS, I seized the opportunity to do the test.
Of course, like when you do any life-changing test for the first time, my anxiety was high. At that time, you had to wait a long time for your results but thankfully that has been shortened now. After finding out, I kept it to myself for a while and whenever I saw my friends in a cluster and talking, I would assume that they had found out and were talking about me. It was a very anxious period for me.
I remember a particular incident in which one of my friends called and asked what was wrong with me because I had so many pimples on my face. I was so afraid and thought that it must be the virus bringing out all the pimples. But since I came out and talked about it, I have been very free and comfortable.
I disclosed my status to my family less than three months after I was diagnosed and since then, I have become an activist for young people, advocating for access to information, including sexual reproductive health, treatment and preventive measures. I am now 36 years; that means I have been doing this over the past 15years, and I feel very fulfilled doing it.
I have particular interest in those living in the slums and other underdeveloped areas because I have discovered that there are several factors that make youths from these areas very vulnerable. From over-population, to the presence of many hotels and brothels and drug users, the youths there are highly vulnerable.
Tell us more about what you do at NEPWHAN.
In the last 15 years that I have been living with HIV, I have been privileged to work with several healthcare practitioners – pharmacists, doctors and several specialists. I use myself as an example and make them understand that HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence. I am doing well and I’m taking my treatments. I have been hospitalised only once in my 15 years of living with HIV and it was due to stress.
The anti-retroviral drug is very helpful. When people living with HIV take their anti-retroviral drug, they will be very strong and their viral load will be undetectable. The drug helps to send the virus from people’s bloodstream and boosts their CD4 count, which is the body immune system, which will in turn help to fight infections. So, we are healthy, stronger and the body’s ability to fight infection will be stronger, so that we won’t be prone to other infections and diseases like tuberculosis.
People living with HIV also have to be careful and ensure they take their drug at the right time in the right dose and quantity. There is also no reason to hide from people when they want to take their drugs. They need to be comfortable with their treatment, be strong and confident about themselves. Any individual living with HIV should be able and willing to take their medications 100 per cent.
What would you say are the major challenges that people living with HIV/AIDS face?
Apart from access to treatment, which I think has been getting better with the intervention of PCN and ACPN, the other challenge that people living with HIV face is stigmatisation. This challenge is caused by human beings, not the virus. The former president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan signed the Anti-Discrimination Act into law. But even with that, a whole lot of people living with HIV still face stigmatisation in the workplace. Many are denied jobs because of their status. They should not be denied jobs and the means to provide for their families, just because they are HIV positive.
Being positive does not make us less human. The virus only affects our immunity and not our humanity. So, I use this opportunity to appeal to companies in the private sector that still engage in this act to stop it. The government alone cannot stop stigmatisation, even with laws. These laws have been passed for quite a while now but a whole lot of companies in the private sector have still refused to adhere to them.
It is a criminal offence to deny an individual that is competent and possesses the right skill to do your job the opportunity to serve or to work just because he or she is HIV positive.