(By Adebayo Oladejo)
It was a case of taking the bull by the horns, when the Association of Lady Pharmacists (ALPs), Lagos State Chapter, in collaboration with the duo of Association of Community Pharmacists of Nigeria (ACPN), Ajeromi/ IfelodunZone, and Howard University – Pharmacy and Continuing Education Centre (HU – PACE) held a special Health Counselling and Screening programme at the Phase 1 and 2 brothel, Tolu Road, Ajegunle, Lagos.
The programme, which was organised to offer free counselling and screening “on HIV, blood sugar, blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), and body fat and skeletal muscle tone amongst special women population” became necessary, in order to effectively reach certain segments of the population, who for particular reasons might not be disposed to personally avail themselves of the benefits of health screening and counselling.
According to Pharm. Modupe Ologunagba, chairperson, ALPs (Lagos State Chapter), “our motive behind this programme was to make sure we penetrate some special set of people, like these commercial sex workers, so as to sensitise them primarily to regularly undertake screening on their blood sugar, body mass index, body fat, their skeletal bones, as well as HIV. At the end of the screening, we discovered that a lot of them had never undertaken the blood sugar monitoring before. We also discovered that a small percentage of them have issues with their blood sugar, which was as a result of their high consumption of alcoholic drinks and cigarettes.”
She further disclosed that HIV in Nigeria “is spreading at an alarming rate, and a lot of people, especially the less privileged, are not even aware of the importance of health screening and are not aware of some other disease conditions that pose risks to their health. So, we are here to give this special set of people free health information, health education and undertake health screening.”
While addressing the sex workers, Pharm. Ologunagba urged them to consider their health first in whatever they did, adding that looking healthy was not an indication that one was free from HIV/AIDS. “Nigeria has the second largest number of new infections reported yearly, because one in every twenty people is said to be living with the virus. Every moment, someone dies of AIDS-related illness and Nigeria is ranked second in HIV prevalence in Sub- Saharan Africa.”
Speaking further, she said it was important that the target population of the programme knew their status, as it would help improve the quality of their health, adding that the test was absolutely confidential, as only the counsellors had access to the results, and they were not allowed to discuss them with anyone, other than the specific individuals concerned. “You need to make up your minds and don’t be discouraged by what you hear people say about HIV/AIDS test; they are mere strategies to discourage those who genuinely want to do it,” she said.
Also speaking at the event, Pharm. (Pastor) Gbolagade Iyiola, national assistant to the general secretary, ACPN, expressed his delight at being able to be of help to the commercial sex workers. He said, as far as he was concerned, he related with them like every other person. “This is my own constituency and these people are my people. Forget the fact that they are commercial sex workers today, who knows what they would become tomorrow?” he asked rhetorically.
Commenting on the exact justification for taking the programme to the brothel, Pharm. Iyiola said, “We are in the midst of these commercial sex workers because we know they are most at risk people, and we have successfully screened, counselled and advised them on the prevention methods that they need to adopt, to prevent themselves from getting infected with HIV virus, and we are very happy at the way they accepted and cooperated with us.”
He further added: “From what we have on ground now, about two hundred sex workers, including their managers and bar men, have been tested so far. But the amazing thing is that the news about the health education has really gotten to them very well, because the result here from the HIV screening is very encouraging. The HIV counselling and testing result is highly confidential, and no one is permitted to disclose the result to anyone else, aside from the person that owns the result. But from what we have here, less than five percent of the population is positive, and this shows that the effort to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS is really working.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with Pharmanews, Pharm. Nwokoro Jerome, the zonal coordinator, ACPN, Ajeromi/Ifelodun Local Government, who is also the vice president, Alpha Vision International, said the programme was packaged to serve as a means of corporate social responsibility to the Ajegunle community. He noted that the commercial sex workers were the most at risk of disease, due to the risky nature of their activities. And that they required education and awareness on the need to monitor and take care of themselves. He also added that the sex workers also needed empowerment, so that when they quit their present job, they could have a more productive work and life.
In his words, “We are doing this medical screening and counselling in collaboration with Lady Pharmacists, HU-PACE and Alpha Vision International, and our ultimate goal is to reach all the hotels in this community. Meanwhile, one unique thing about this hotel is that it is very popular, and it has the highest number of our target population, which are the commercial sex workers in the whole of Ajeromi/Ifelodun Local Government Area. So far, we have attended to about two hundred sex workers, and we understand that the hotel has over two hundred and fifty of them. In addition, the management of the hotel and the people of this community are also cooperative.”
While thanking the organisers, one of the commercial sex workers, Miss Lucy Bassey, who had been a commercial sex worker for about three years, said she was delighted that professional bodies like ACPN and ALPs could deem it fit to come to their brothel with such a laudable programme. She also expressed her relief at finally knowing her HIV status: “Before I went for the test, I had concluded that there was no way I could be HIV-free, but after the test, when I was told that it was negative, I couldn’t believe it. Although I have been advised to go back in three months’ time for a confirmation test, I am a hundred percent sure that it would also be negative,” she enthused.
She further added rather remorsefully, “The fact that I am HIV-free today is a clear indication that it is high time I stopped this illicit job that I am doing. I have been praying to God to set me free for the past three years, and I am trusting God that I won’t stay beyond this year 2013, in this place. I also want to advise other girls, who are in my shoes, not to allow the situation of the country to push them into this degrading job. In my three years in this place, I have seen a lot of things and I have decided that, if God could make me HIV-free, that I would go back to my hair dressing work, and I am not planning to renege on that promise.”
Also speaking, the duo of Juliet Nwokoro and Blessing Asuwata, who confessed they were new in the brothel, said it was peer pressure and harsh economic conditions that pushed them into prostitution. They thanked the organisers of the programme for giving them the opportunity to know about their health and the need for them to remain healthy.