Let’s Stay Together

The HIV support group at the National Blood Transfusion Centre in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

Eric Bond, EGPAF

When the Second Ivorian Civil War erupted in November 2010, Emmanuel, a soldier in Côte d’Ivoire’s army, was called to the rebel-held northern region. Four months later, the government forces had prevailed, and Emmanuel was ordered back to the capital city of Abidjan. An orderly man, Emmanuel decided to clean up his hair and beard before returning home. He and several other soldiers shared a single razor. Emmanuel did not realize that he was infecting himself with HIV—which can be transmitted through fresh blood.

Six months later, Emmanuel, a regular blood donor, visited the National Blood Transfusion Centre to make a donation. To keep the blood supply safe, all donors in Côte d’Ivoire are administered an HIV test at each visit. Emmanuel was shocked when his test came back positive for the virus.  He had not engaged in extramarital sex. He thought back to the shared razor in the rainforest.

“It was difficult for me,” says Emmanuel, now 36. “I was so depressed that I stayed in my room and refused to come out. Finally, my family broke down the door.

“I was afraid to tell them that I am HIV-positive. I am well-liked in the family and I did not want to be stigmatized. So instead I told them that I was traumatized by the war. The only person I told was my wife.”

Emmanuel’s wife has since passed away from an accident, and he is left to raise their 6-year-old daughter on his own. 

Fortunately, health workers at the National Blood Transfusion Centre were able to link Emmanuel to a support group that meets weekly at the center. There, he met other people who were living with HIV and who also face HIV-related stigma, which remains high in this West African nation. Emmanuel is one of only a handful of men in the group, which fluctuates between 50 and 60 members.

     

     

Emmanuel is now a mentor to new members—particularly new male members. “People came through for me,” he says. “They listened to me. So now I have to give back. I am available 24/7.”

“I figured that Emmanuel’s story is harder than mine,” says Charles, an HIV-positive journalist who joined the support group just four months ago. “He is doing so well raising his daughter. His story really helped me realize that it is not the end of the world. If he can do it, I can do it.”

“The support group has brought hope into my life,” Charles continues. “By coming here, I see that it is important for us to be adherent to HIV treatment. I consider this group more as my family, because I can talk about my HIV status openly, but I am afraid to talk about it with my actual family. This group is helping me learn to prepare them to accept my status.”

“People going through this disease need to have a way to express and talk and have support,” says Jacqueline, the group’s leader. “Once we get over our own self-stigma, some of us can be beneficial to others because we can share our experience.”

Besides providing testimonies for each other, support group members educate themselves about HIV. Each week health workers and some members of the support group share information on a theme chosen by the group. Recent topics include interpreting viral load numbers, issues of adherence, preventing sexual transmission of HIV, and prevention of-mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

“I feel that when I understand this disease, it is easier to live with it,” says one of the women in the group. “I used to be shy about taking my medicine, but when I learned about the consequences of not taking it properly, I changed my attitude. I am no longer shy about taking it.”

“Many people still hide this disease, so we have a project in which we go out into the community to sensitize people, to reduce stigma,” Jacqueline says, presenting a card that health workers, social workers, and members of the group hand out to people newly diagnosed with HIV.

“You are not alone in your situation,” reads the card. “Do not bear it alone.”

The card includes contact information for the support group and the tagline Restons ensemble: “Let’s stay together.”

The HIV support group at the National Blood Transfusion Centre in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, is sponsored by the Fondation Ariel Glaser pour la Lutte Contre le SIDA Pediatrique (Ariel Glaser), an affiliate organization of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF).