A woman leads a training session on HIV/AIDS in Ganta, Liberia.
Courtesy of Kathy Griffith
By Julia Kayser*
April 25, 2013—Ganta United Methodist Hospital in Liberia is committed to reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS. First, though, they have to help people change the way they think about the disease.
Many people in West Africa still associate HIV/AIDS with witchcraft. Through a health-education radio talk show, Ganta United Methodist Hospital has reached nearly 60,000 listeners with information about how HIV/AIDS is spread and how it can be treated.
Another piece in the hospital’s strategy is to train volunteers to talk about HIV/AIDS in their communities. Lectures, personal testimonies, drama, role-play, posters, and film are all used in the training. Participants learn about causes, symptoms, and treatment of HIV/AIDS. The training is also a powerful way to combat stigma. About 3,500 people have benefited from these training workshops so far.
After attending a workshop in her village, one woman (who asked to remain anonymous) came up to an instructor and requested a private conversation. She started by thanking the instructor. She said that the reason so many people in her rural community were dying is because they were unaware of the information taught in the workshop.
But she told a story that shows that this is changing. Her oldest daughter, she said, married a man who had two very sick wives. Before long, her daughter showed signs of the same illness. Five witch doctors were hired to heal her; nothing they did made any difference.
Then, the Ganta United Methodist Hospital staff visited their community to provide vaccines. The daughter took her younger sister to be vaccinated and heard the hospital staff talking about the symptoms of HIV/AIDS—symptoms that sounded very familiar to her. So, she asked how she could be tested. Two days later, she had an appointment at Ganta United Methodist Hospital.
She tested positive and immediately was given an antiretroviral drug (ARV). She also received counseling. Since then, she has referred several other women from her village to the hospital for testing.
“Now, my daughter looks well and healthy,” her mother told the instructor. “HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence as may be imagined. Once the affected person is promptly placed on treatment, that person is likely to live a longer life,” she concluded, with evident joy.
Ganta United Methodist Hospital is committed to voluntary and confidential counseling and testing. It also has started HIV/AIDS clubs at local schools, where students can learn about the disease and reach out for testing. The more normative it becomes to talk about HIV/AIDS, the more the associated stigma will decline. And if kids understand HIV/AIDS before they reach sexual maturity, they are more likely to use protection and avoid contracting the disease.
One of the ways this project measures its success is by the number of people requesting condoms. “Since most of the people have now realized that one of the main ways HIV can be transmitted is by having unprotected sex,” the hospital’s project report reads, “the use of condoms is now getting to be a common practice.”
Projects like this one require long-term support, because they count on the cumulative effect of many years of training and testing to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS. Can you help with a donation to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund? It’s Advance #982345, and every penny helps to keep projects like the one at Ganta United Methodist Hospital afloat.
*Julia Kayser is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org