Chadian men wanting to chat up the girls or boost their credit rating are turning to fake certificates to prove they are not HIV-positive, to improve their chances with potential partners and private moneylenders.
Paul, a teacher in a secondary school in Chad's capital N'djamena, has done just that. Last month he got a phoney certificate showing he was HIV-negative without even stepping foot inside a testing centre.
"I use it to seduce women and buy goods at the shop on credit while I'm waiting for the end of the month," Paul told IRIN, saying he got the precious pass from a relative who works at a testing centre. "When they see this, people trust me."
Jacob, a mechanic, also shelled out money to buy an HIV-free certificate. He paid 20,000 CFA (US $40) for a piece of paper to prove he was HIV-negative, even though testing is now free in Chad.
Last December, the government abolished the $40 charge for an HIV test to make the service more accessible in a country where the average inhabitant lives on less than $21 a month.
"On 1 December 2002, which was Chad's national day, a friend told me he would get me a certificate showing I was HIV-negative if I gave him 20,000 CFA," Jacob told IRIN, as he repaired cars in his garage in the dusty Chadian capital.
"That friend told me the certificate would allow me to find a job, to buy on credit and to chat girls up," he added.
Jacob and Paul represent isolated cases of such trickery, according to the coordinator of Chad's National Programme to Fight AIDS (PNLS), Donato Koyalta.
"These cases of abuse are not the norm," Koyalta told IRIN.
But he admitted that there were certain situations when people were now required to prove their HIV-status. "For instance, some families demand that their children be HIV-tested before getting married," Koyalta said. "Of course, a few people might be tempted to bypass the tests," he added.
The first HIV-certificate fraud case came to light in 2000. A young Chadian girl who had tested HIV-positive managed to marry her French fiancé after showing him the results of a fake test that she had got in Chad which showed her free of the virus. Her husband found out the truth after she was re-tested in France.
According to Koyalta, neither the scientific reliability of the HIV tests, nor the competence of the state-trained health workers performing them could be called into question. But he acknowledged that the delivery of certificates is not subject to any external control.
WANT A LOAN? HAVE THE VIRUS?
"Men are men," said Koyalta. "Given the poverty and the way salaries are paid irregularly, ethical problems are affecting more and more professions."
Although officially an HIV test is not required for any legal procedure in this mainly desert country of eight million people, showing a certificate showing you are HIV-negative can open doors. And a test showing that you have the virus can shut them.
One private money lender interviewed in the Moursal neighbourhood of the capital said she demanded proof from all her clients that they were not HIV-positive before advancing them cash. The woman said that if her client died there was no way she could recoup the money from his family, because usury is illegal in Chad. Several of her borrowers had died of AIDS, she added.
Ever since voluntary testing was launched in Chad in 1999, more and more people have been dropping into the screening centres to get themselves tested.
"At the beginning, we received one or two people a day", said Denis Tatola, who works at the Al Nadjma centre and is living with the virus himself. "The majority of people used to be expatriates," he added. "Now we receive an average of seven people a day a centre of all nationalities."
There are currently 38 voluntary testing centres across Chad. Eventually, the PNLS plans to set up a testing centre in each of the 54 health districts nationwide.
"An estimated 5,000 people were screened in 2004, 3,000 of which were in N'djamena," Michel Laoumaye, who works at a testing centre in one of the capital's hospitals, told IRIN.
"In addition, other patients who came in for other consultations in the hospitals were screened without their knowledge to establish national statistics," he explained.
UNAIDS estimates that Chad's HIV prevalence rate stood at 4.8 percent of the adult population at the end of 2003.
Health workers and AIDS activists attribute the higher volume of traffic at HIV-testing centres to an increase in the PNLS public information and awareness campaigns.
The price cuts of antiretroviral treatment to 5,000 CFA ($10) a month, announced by president Idriss Deby last December, have also helped. So too have efforts to provide psychological and social care to HIV-positive Chadians.
However, flashing proof that you are not HIV-positive still brings definite advantages.
"In N'djamena, people who are HIV-negative walk around with the results of their test in their pocket or bag," explained one Chadian journalist. "They do not hesitate to brandish them to win people's confidence, as people are suspicious of AIDS.
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