How Nigeria’s anti-gay law derailed anti-AIDS effort

MHNN logoNigeria’s new anti-gay law derailed the country’s effort to curb AIDS among the high-risk population of men who have sex with men, a group with an HIV infection rate of 15 percent HIV — four times that of the general population.

Antigone Barton writes in Science Speaks about the Men’s Health Network Nigeria, which was formed by the Population Council and local partners in Nigeria when the magnitude of those men’s infection rate became known. Here Barton tells what happened to the network after Nigeria’s bill prohibiting gatherings of gay people was signed into law on Jan. 7:

The network reached [that high-risk group and]  the clients of sex workers and men who inject drugs as well, making services accessible to some of the least served and hardest hit by Nigeria’s HIV epidemic, and the numbers of men reached grew quickly.

“We thought everything was fine,” the spokeswoman [for the network] added, “until January 7, 2014.” …

In the wake of the Nigeria law, gains vanished overnight, said the spokeswoman (whose name the Population Council requested not be used for her protection). From reaching 1,700 men in three months, she said, programs saw numbers of new clients halve, and drop to zero, she said, as threats of extortion, arrests and mob violence drove patients into hiding. “Among health care providers there was a lot of panic, there was a lot of frustration, and a lot of fear,” she added.

As reaching people in groups became impossible, she said, programs had to change their strategies to reach individuals. The government, in turn had to release a statement saying it was okay to seek health services.

Similar problems have followed the enactment of Uganda’s harsh new anti-gay law, most prominently the April 3 raid on a clinic serving LGBT people who are HIV-positive. Barton adds:

Paul Semugoma
Paul Semugoma

Whatever form enforcement of the laws take, treatment interruptions will be inevitable when patients live in fear that seeking treatment could lead to exposure, said [Ugandan HIV treatment and gay rights advocate and physician Paul] Semugoma, who left Uganda and moved to South Africa after coming out as gay at the 2012 International AIDS Conference.

And yes, he replied, to an audience member’s question, treatment interruptions will further set back efforts to combat HIV, as well as harm individuals’ health, by leading to drug resistance in an environment where access to additional lines of treatment are challenged.

“There’s greater clarity about how to address the HIV epidemic than there ever was. The challenge is to scale it up,” [amfAR Vice President Chris] Collins said. “The laws,” he added, “are really bringing home the inextricable connection between health and human rights.”

For more information, read the full article in Science Speaks: “HIV services derailed in wake of Nigeria, Uganda laws panelists say.”

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor / publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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