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Stigma driving epidemic underground

[Lesotho] This thatch building in the capital Maseru represents the national symbol of Lesotho, the Basotho hat.
The tiny mountain kingdom has one of the world's highest HIV infection rates (IRIN)

Lesotho has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in Southern Africa, yet stigma and discrimination have driven the epidemic underground.

"For many Basotho, it is still another person's problem, not their own. Many are still in denial and would rather suffer in silence," Lesotho Red Cross HIV/AIDS Coordinator Molooane Ramakhula, told PlusNews.

With an estimated HIV prevalence rate of 31 percent coupled with acute food shortages, the tiny kingdom of 2 million inhabitants can no longer ignore the disease.

"Lesotho is like one big family, people are reluctant to get tested because others will find out. And then family members will pressure them to keep quiet if they are positive," Ingo Seifert founder of AIDS NGO, Positive Action, told PlusNews.

Inadequate support structures had also contributed to the silence on HIV/AIDS. Lesotho was the only country in the region without a network of groups of people living with HIV/AIDS (PWA), he said.

"There are only 2 groups for people living with HIV/AIDS (PWA) in [the capital] Maseru. So far about 30 people countrywide have publicly disclosed their status. Even then, very few are talking openly about AIDS," Seifert noted.

Hospitals and health workers were also part of the problem. "They don't want to look after you because they say it's a waste of money, you are going to die after all. They don't even call AIDS by name they refer to it as ID [Immune Deficiency]," he added.

Support structures put in place by the Ministry of Social Welfare were "very weak", as HIV/AIDS was still a "relatively new thing altogether", Ramakhula noted.

Prevention campaigns had created higher levels of awareness but there were not enough messages about what to do when HIV-positive.

Ramakhula said: "We need to move away from negative messages and show people that you can live positively with HIV/AIDS."

While Seifert added that "there's been a lot of lip service and talking for the sake of talking. All the different messages are confusing people."

There was an absence of an effective communication strategy, as prevention campaigns were only just taking off in the country, he noted.

But authorities in the Mokhotlong district have established a local task force to address the problem. Last week, an HIV-positive woman disclosed her status at a public gathering in the area.

"People were shocked, but we are making progress. If communities can see more people coming forward and being accepted, this will hopefully trickle down to them," Phole Mphobole, a member of the task force, told PlusNews.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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