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Traditional chiefs agree to spread HIV/AIDS messages

Map of Niger
Une bonne partie du territoire nigerien se trouve en zone sahélienne, une région aride aux confints du désert du Sahara (IRIN )

The 30 traditional chiefs dressed in bright-coloured gowns or "boubous" and turbans that covered all but their noses and eyes came to the northern Niger town of In Gall, over 1,000 km from the capital Niamey, to attend a festival.

As the festivities inched towards the climax, the chiefs set aside time for a seminar on HIV/AIDS presented by a female doctor, Hama Bilkisa. They took notes and watched the power-point presentation on the hard facts on the disease in the local Tamachek language.

The 25 September seminar was organised by the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, to raise awareness on HIV/AIDS among the chiefs, on the sidelines of the Cure Salee or the "Salt Cure" festival - an annual celebration for the nomadic tribes of northern Niger.

Niger, according to the UN Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has a low adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 0.87 percent. Many of the cases are migrant workers coming back from neighbouring countries that have a higher prevalence rate.

According to health workers, infected migrant workers are returning to Niger in higher numbers, risking further spread of the disease to their partners. Particularly worrying, health workers said, was an increasing number of women contracting HIV and passing it on to their unborn children.

According to UNICEF, traditional chiefs in conservative areas of northern Niger have agreed to spread messages on HIV/AIDS in an attempt to curb its spread in this landlocked Sahelian country.

In 2000, UNICEF signed an agreement with the traditional chiefs to use their positions as leaders to promote programmes in health, education, social mobilisation and communication. This included HIV/AIDS awareness programmes which UNICEF has incorporated into its activities.

The activities focus on malaria, HIV/AIDS, guinea worm, malnutrition and encourage the use of vaccines to control preventable diseases.

The agency also promotes girls education, fights early marriages, supports women and childrens' rights and is involved in advocacy, social mobilisation and communication for behaviour change.

UNICEF said it had received a positive response from chiefs, helping it reach more people with the different health messages.

Since signing the agreement, UNICEF has organised sensitisation seminars for traditional chiefs, used community radios to produce short messages and organised question and answer competitions on HIV/AIDS and other health issues. The winners were given prizes.

During the In Gall seminar, the language used was explicit but none of the conservative chiefs seemed bothered by that. At the end of the presentation, they applauded and several of them raised their hands to ask questions.

Asked one: "Why should we say there is medicine to treat the opportunistic infections because if we say so, people will not be careful."

Only 48 percent of Niger's population have access to health care. These are mainly people who live less than 10 km from a health facility.

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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