NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Thrown out of home for being HIV positive, Faduma Adan left Somalia through bandit-ridden land to seek medical help in Kenya, away from her hometown where elders propose camels milk and urine as treatments for the disease.
The 25-year old had decided to get an HIV test after she had been sick for a long time. She had sores on her lips, blackened skin, and was unable to eat.
“I feel lonely. I don’t have friends,” Adan, whose parents had chased her away, told Alertnet by phone from her Somali hometown of Kismayu. “People isolate you if they know that you are HIV positive and a woman. They think that you are a prostitute.”
Once in Kenya, she faced more challenges, being arrested on arrival because the East African country has officially closed its border with Somalia to stop the influx of refugees fleeing war.
“Crossing the border was the biggest challenge I ever faced,” she recalled of her journey through a no-man’s land where armed combatants roam.
After her 24-hour arrest, Adan finally found medical help in Garissa, a Kenyan city about 140km from the Somali border. Staying there for six months, she met other HIV-positive people who made her feel felt less isolated.
NO MORE TREATMENT
But now, back in Somalia, she no longer has any treatment and the loneliness has returned.
She has been accepted back into the family home, but she misses her HIV-positive friends from Kenya.
Adan now spends most of her time in the house in Kismayu, where al Shabaab militants allied with al Qaeda control the town and restrict women’s movement.
“I am still a young lady but nobody can marry or even have a relationship with me,” she said. “I am sure there are some (HIV) positive people here but it’s an untold story.”
In south and central Somalia, where the government is fighting the Islamist al Shabaab militants, insecurity caused by 20 years of civil war prevents public education that could reduce the stigma against HIV/AIDS.
“The belief is that HIV is a punishment by God for not being faithful in marriage and going around with other women,” Chiara Pierotti, an HIV/AIDS specialist with the United Nations’ children’s fund in Somalia told AlertNet.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
The campaign against HIV/AIDS is in its infancy in Somalia. HIV/AIDS was not detected in the country until the late 1990s, and the first programme to diagnose and treat the illness there was not introduced until 2005, according to Pierotti.
“There was a lack of money and the priorities were otherwise with the war. It was very difficult to start an HIV programme,” said Pierotti.
The prevalence rate in Somalia is 0.94 percent, one of the lowest in Africa. Potentially, this provides a window of opportunity to control the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country.
However, due to a lack of knowledge about which populations are most at risk and the behaviours which spread the disease there, it is difficult to come up with appropriate interventions.
As fighting rages in south and central Somalia, agencies focus on rolling out basic services like testing, medication and screening of blood transfusions. Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to manage HIV/AIDS are only available in the cities of Merka and Mogadishu, the capital, and in the south-central town of Eldere.
Healthcare and educational campaigns are more practicable in the more peaceful northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland.
Nonetheless, HIV/AIDS awareness is increasing. In 2010, 16,500 people in Somalia took HIV tests, a 61-percent increase on the previous year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), while about 900 people in Somalia take ARVs.
However, many people are living with the disease without seeking medical treatment.
Ahmed Mohamed, 50 years old, lives in southern Somalia’s Gedo region with his two wives and 13 children.
He discovered he was HIV positive when he visited Kenya and sought treatment for what he believed was tuberculosis. He spent several weeks in hospital before returning home.
“Now I am okay. I don’t take any medicine like I did in Nairobi,” he told AlertNet. “I constantly drink camel milk and urine and eat camel meat.”
(Additional reporting by Katy Migiro)
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)