‘I am tired of being ill-treated and falsely accused of being mentally ill and being treated with such scorn because of rumours that I am an HIV sero positive patient.’ These are some of the words left behind by Emmanuel Eyo in the early days of the year 2013. A 30 year-old Cameroonian young man, Emmanuel tired of life and committed suicide by throwing himself into the Wouri river- one of Cameroon’s most renowned and dangerous rivers.- in the early days of the year 2013.
Tired of being stigmatized by his family and people in the neighbourhood in which he lived, Emmanuel decided to put an end to his days. Though committing suicide has arguably never being a solution to stigma and discrimination, Emmanuel’s act in a country where many still consider HIV/AIDS to be a mysterious disease and a curse from the gods, is comprehendible and raises questions about the treatment of people Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA).
This blog might be about Emmanuel, but what may be hard for you to imagine is that, like in Emmanuel’s case, many suicide cases in Douala and other towns are happening because of stigma related to being HIV positive. It is becoming clear from these acts of suicide that stigmatization is rising and having a ravaging effect on the physical and mental health of PLWHA in Cameroon.
The above observation is quite paradoxical because it is largely observed that the level of awareness on HIV/AIDS has increased among Cameroonians in the past decade while at the same time the number of people committing suicide for reasons related to stigma and discrimination because of their serological status is rising. Urgent action needs to be taken if this must be stopped.
In recent years, commendable efforts have been made by Cameroon’s Ministry of Public Health, Civil Society Organisations(CSOs),United Nations’ agencies, and other development partners to fight against HIV/AIDS and avoid any new infections. That said, the fact is that the emphases of the different campaigns and programs implemented by these stakeholders has been around raising awareness about the existence of HIV/AIDS and how to avoid or protect oneself against it with little or nothing done around the stigma suffered by young people like Emmanuel because of their serological status . In my opinion, this gap in programming could explain the fact that despite rising levels of awareness about HIV/AIDS, the level of stigma towards PLWHA appears to be increasing instead of decreasing.
It is high time that the clinical approach to the fight against HIV/AIDS, which is dominant in initiatives and programs run by various community stakeholders in Cameroon, be complimented by the community approach to fighting against HIV/AIDS. When given its place in the fight against HIV/AIDS, sufficient attention will be paid to socio- cultural and religious factors that impact perceptions that people have of PLWHA in their communities. In order to truly combat stigma, integrating a community-based approach must be given the place that it deserves in the formulation of policies and implementation of health programs.
Stigma is an important factor in the effective fight against HIV/AIDS and should be considered as such. I am convinced that, unlike Emmanuel’s story which l have shared with you through this blog, untold is the story of millions of PLWHVA, especially the young people among them, who are languishing in stigma and wishing that they had never been born. Let’s act now, all together, to make the fight against stigma become as important as the distribution of condoms. It is only by so doing that we can effectively fight not only against HIV/ AIDS but also against the stigma and discrimination that is killing PLWHA in my country.