Uganda: World AIDS Day Civil Society Press Statement

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday December 3 2014

Uganda can end AIDS, but only with evidence, science and human rights: does the President agree?

Civil society responds to the President’s views on the fight against HIV in Uganda and calls for urgent action to mitigate further harm to the national response 

(Kampala) On December 1, 2014, World AIDS Day, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni made remarks at the Ft. Portal national commemoration. A coalition of civil society organizations on the front lines of Uganda’s HIV response today reacted to his statements.

Despite a few reassuring comments, the views expressed by the President are cause for grave concern to every Ugandan who wants to see us defeat the AIDS epidemic—in particular, his views that Ugandans should fight AIDS by not having sex (‘put a padlock on your private parts’), and his blaming of evidence based prevention interventions such as condoms and medical male circumcision on Uganda’s troubled AIDS response. He also said becoming HIV positive brings shame to a family.

“These off the cuff comments by our leaders are a wake up call, indicating how out of touch with reality, science, and evidence Uganda’s AIDS response is,” said Alice Kayongo Mutebi of Uganda Cares. “We are also alarmed that his remarks fuel the spread of shame, stigma and discrimination which actually increase the risk of HIV infection among Ugandans, and hold people back from life saving services.”

New data released by UNAIDS show that Uganda lags far behind the region in reduction of AIDS related deaths, and contributes substantially to new infections across sub Saharan Africa. Uganda is one of three countries that accounted for an estimated 48% of new infections in sub Saharan Africa in 2013 alone. Uganda has not reported the major reductions in rates of new infection that our neighbors have. Civil society attributed this lagging performance to lack of emphasis on evidence-based interventions—in particular, the interventions the President was disparaging. Ironically, this evidence typically comes from research in Uganda, such as finding that medical male circumcision helps prevent men from acquiring HIV. Unfortunately, rates of condom use in Uganda have declined sharply between 2005 and 2011; self reported condom use during sex with a non-cohabitating partner declined from 47% to 29% and 53% to 38% among women and men, respectively. Undeniably, the president’s stigmatizing comments further undermine effective prevention.

“These claims by the President are poisoning our national efforts,” said Lilian Mworeko of ICW East Africa. “We are fighting for our lives, but views such as these actually weaken us in battle. Do our leaders want us to win this fight? Why are they content to see us continually falling behind? 570 young women aged 15-24 are infected with HIV every week in Uganda. Many times, these young women are coerced into sex, and local authorities ignore their cries for protection and solidarity. Do the president’s views on abstinence help these women, or bring them further blame and strife?”

 Claims that Safe Medical Male Circumcision is ineffective are wrong! Comparing Safe Medical Male Circumcision and Traditional Male Circumcision is almost the same as comparing apples and oranges. The two procedures are not the same and the benefits of Safe Medical Male Circumcision are well proven. Science has revealed that Safe Medical Male Circumcision works. It reduces men’s risk of HIV acquisition by 60% and when enough men are circumcised, it reduces women’s risk too.

 Also alarming is the President’s assertion that an HIV positive diagnosis brings shame on a family—encouraging a culture of shame and stigma actually makes people less likely to be open about their status, and more afraid of testing, because they fear the shame that could result. This in turn actually increases avoidable HIV transmission and it beats my understanding when Uganda claims to be fighting stigma and discrimination yet it is actually fueled right from the top—most people with HIV in Uganda are unaware of their status. Incredibly, only 39% of people in Uganda today know how to protect themselves against HIV—and this proportion has remained stagnant for essentially the last decade.

 This lagging performance is precisely because lack of emphasis on evidence based interventions—in particular, earlier access to HIV treatment to save lives and reduce new infections; prevention and treatment targeting populations in greatest need, including young women aged 15-24, serodiscordant couples, and truck drivers; as well as criminalized groups like men who have sex with men and sex workers. Its high time Ugandans accepted reality, evidence, and the rights of all people to live in dignity, including people with HIV. 

Contact for more information:

Alice Kayongo-Mutebi, Uganda Cares: 0772440108

Kenneth Mwehonge, HEPS Uganda: 0701182809

Asia Russell, Health GAP: 0776574729

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