Sunday, July 8, 2012

HIV/AIDS got a brand new face

Day 25
4 July 2012

(All right ladies and gents, time for some #realtalk)

Innovation is a truly beautiful paradox. Actually, I think most paradoxes are beautiful, but especially innovation, with its ability to simultaneously foster creation and destruction. “Old and busted” is ditched for “new hotness” (Men in Black fans, holla!). For patients with HIV/AIDS, innovation meant new life when the first antiretroviral (ARV) drug became available in 1987. Since then, numerous other ARV’s have been developed that have prolonged and vastly improved the quality of patients’ lives.

The West African AIDS Foundation (WAAF) we visited on Wednesday is an NGO, set up in 1999. It is a partner organization to the International Health Care Clinic (IHCC), where the head full-time physician, Dr. Naa and her staff of 8 people, currently manage the treatment of 800 men, women, and children. Since the clinic first opened 18 years ago, it has seen a lot of death. As Dr. Naa explained to us, the idea of a hospice in Ghanaian culture is not well understood. Death is a taboo subject; dying is not talked about until death actually occurs (funerals are a BIG deal here; I've actually seen coffins for sale on the street). Because of this, communities and even people in the health sector would largely neglect those who are terminally ill. Individuals with AIDS would be brought to the clinic when it is too late to offer them substantial care.

Before 2003, IHCC did not have access to ARV’s. The clinic was effectually a waiting room for the dying. Dr. Naa’s words painted a vivid scene of patients doing little more every day than sitting sadly under the big almond tree in the courtyard, left alone by their loved ones. One of the nurses chuckled that the clinic saw so much death that it dubbed one of its able-bodied staff, the super-heroic “Mortuary Man,” who took it upon himself to handle the bodies postmortem. We couldn’t help but laugh with the clinic staff. Even the darkest humor helps to make light in a dismal situation!

2003 signaled a “new face of HIV” in Ghana. With ARV access, patients whose conditions are caught in the early stages of HIV, could be spared a few more years of health and self-sufficiency. In light of this, WAAF’s mission is to educate as many Ghanaians as possible about both the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. Dr. Naa elaborated that education is the key to eliminate the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS because the stigma is deadly. It is the reason that people will refuse to get tested or that families and communities will shun those who have the illness. As one of the nurses explained to us, the culture here tends toward superstition. For many Ghanaians, death does not have a natural cause, it has a spiritual one. HIV/AIDS means you are a bad person, you are cursed, you are under demonic influence... they believe touching or having contact with you will give them the disease. When an individual does decide to seek help, the clinic will sometimes have to make special arrangements to deliver treatment in secret because the word of mouth can ruin that individual’s reputation in the community. Every individual, regardless of his/her level of financial means, is accepted with open arms.

While there are still many obstacles facing WAAF and IHCC, the outlook is so bright. I was incredibly touched by the stories of this small staff who, despite working in such a bleak field, embrace every opportunity to smile. They work hard, but it was plain to see how much they love what they do. It’s amazing what innovation can do, when placed in the right hands of people who are dedicated to helping others.

This is the kind of stuff that gets me giddy as a pre-social work major. 

Thank you #ghanalife, I’ll take all the confirmation I can get.

Nante yie,

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