Burundi: HIV/AIDS prevalence climbs by 4,4 percent after declining

By Avit Ndayiziga

In the last two years, the spread of HIV/AIDS among young people grew from 7,9 percent in 2020 to 12.3 percent in 2022 which is a 4.4 percent rise according to Burundi’s Conseil National de Lutte contre le Sida (CNLS).

“Between 2020 and 2022, HIV/AIDS prevalence among young people between 14 and 24 years old surged from 7.9 to 12.3 percent”, reported Doctor Jean Baptiste Nzorironkankuze, the permanent secretary at Conseil National de Lutte contre le Sida (CNLS) Burundi after the review meeting with CNLS members and other partners on September 22, 2023.

According to him, among other developing countries, Burundi has come close to winning the fight against HIV/AIDS by anticipating meeting the  95-95-95 UNAIDS targets aimed at ending HIV as a public health threat by 2025.

“By the end of 2022, Burundi ranked at the top position with HIV/AIDS prevalence of 0.09 percent on a national scale, with a remarkable 89% of individuals living with HIV being aware of their status, with an impressive 98% receiving Antiretroviral Therapy (ART)treatment and 90% achieving viral load suppression.”Dr.Nzorironkankuze highlighted.

Doctor Jean Baptiste Nzorironkankuze, the permanent secretary at Conseil National de Lutte contre le Sida (CNLS) Burundi

The secretary, however, pointed out that HIV/AIDS remains a significant health threat, particularly for the youth of 14 to 24, marginalized and vulnerable groups as prevalence among them is more alarming.

According to the 2022 UNICEF Report, out of a population of 12 million, young adolescents aged 15 to 24 make up 19.29%. Unfortunately, their access to health services remains low, with only 34% being able to avail of them.

As per CNLS, youth of the above age have a strong desire to try many things, including sex, and engage in it awkwardly. Thus, this contributes to the rise in HIV/AIDS prevalence among those between the ages of 14 and 24.

“Nowadays, young people have opted for unsafe sex over abstinence until the wedding day. Another big concern is adult people who indulge young people in sexual coitus, especially young ladies by hooking them with material things such as luxury phones and cars.” Said Dr. Nzorironkankuze.

Noella Niyonkuru, 22, a young lady,  living Sobel site said that she was weighed down by her HIV/AIDS diagnosis by the end of 2022, as she had never thought of being HIV positive at her age.

Initially, Niyonkuru was living with her siblings and parents in Gatumba, a picturesque area located in the western region of Bujumbura, the economic capital of Burundi. It shares a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through the Rusizi River bridge.

In March 2020, disastrous flooding erupted in her locality (Gatumba) and damaged their house, crops, and other livestock. 

After escaping the catastrophic deluge that left no corner of Gatumba untouched, she and her family relocated to Sobel Site, one of three camps that shelter internally displaced people. 

The Site faces numerous challenges, including food scarcity, unemployment, inadequate access to potable water, harsh weather conditions, and freezing temperatures as they live in tents.

Due to the numerous challenges she encountered in this camp, Noella Niyonkuru believes that she contracted HIV/AIDS  from there.

“Living in a camp has never been easy because you share all kinds of objects with all the people. Not only that but due to having enough time without work, you find yourself indulging in sexual activities with multiple partners unsafely to earn a living. She says.

“After one year,” She continued,  I then fell sick. I bought some medication from a drugstore as usual, but my health did not improve. I was not accustomed to falling ill in such a way. It then perplexed my parents.”Said Niyonkuru.

She continued, “My parents started thinking that I was bewitched, and they sold their properties to pay a witch. However,  my health failed to improve. Our neighbors advised us to go to the hospital. She said,

Two days later, my mother accompanied me to the hospital. A nurse helped me onto a hospital bed, put on gloves, and gently inserted a thin needle into my vein to collect blood for testing. Although I felt a quick pinch, it was not too painful. After that, the nurse went to the laboratory to analyze my blood. My mother and I patiently waited for the blood test results,” She explained.

“As I pondered what the illness might be, I thought it would be malaria or typhoid. I had no idea of being  HIV/AIDS positive.” Niyonkuru noted.

“When she came back,” the nurse said: “In life, you can fall sick of any disease you have never thought about.” Suddenly, my heart started beating fast, and a whirlwind of thoughts flooded my mind. But I tried to hold my breath and asked her, “What is the diagnosis? What am I suffering from?” Niyonkuru inquired anxiously.

The nurse looked at my face and empathically said: “We have carefully tested your blood, and I’m sorry to inform you that the results show that you are HIV positive. I understand this news may be overwhelming, but I ensure that I’m here to support you through this.”She ended.

“I glanced at my mother, and some drops of tears streamed down my cheeks” Niyonkuru recalled.

The Chief Executive of the Association Nationale de Soutien aux Séropositifs et Malades du Sida (ANSS-Burundi), the association committed to safeguarding the rights of individuals affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as preventing the spread of the virus and improving the well-being of those impacted or living with it, Jeanne d’Arc Kabanga admits that vulnerable and marginalized groups, along with young people, are experiencing a high HIV/AIDS prevalence as they face a set of challenges.

Jeanne d’Arc Kabanga the Chief Executive of the Association Nationale de Soutien aux Séropositifs et Malades du Sida (ANSS-Burundi)

“Vulnerable and marginalized groups such as sex workers (30% prevalence), drug abusers (15% prevalence), LGBTQ+ individuals (6% prevalence), young people 12.3 % prevalence) and impoverished communities have a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. It is because they face stigma and discrimination along with other barriers such as fear of their HIV status,  accessing healthcare services and ARV treatment.” Kabanga explained on September 26, 2023, after the meeting of the Platforme Coalition Plus de l’Afrique Centrale et de l’Est(PACE).

As the HIV/AIDS prevalence surge among the youth is alarming, the Réseau National des Jeunes Vivant avec le VIH/Sida (RNJ+) organized the 5th national forum for young people living with HIV/AIDS.

Over 250 young people who live with HIV/AIDS participated from various corners of Burundi. The forum was held in Gitega province from August 30 to 31, 2023.

This forum aimed to educate participants on the importance of building autonomy and resilience as a means of overcoming the challenges related to Sexual Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS.

Noella Niyonkuru took part in the forum and shared her experience and the benefits she gained from it. “Before the forum, I felt isolated and unaware that other young people like me were HIV positive. However, after attending the forum and meeting other individuals in similar situations, I am inspired to continue my treatment and plan for my future with newfound courage.”She noted.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nzorironkankuze encourages the youth to abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage, while urging adults to change their reckless behavior that indulges younger generations into sexual activities.

On the other hand, Hamza Venant Burikukiye, the General Director of Capes+ (a coalition of organizations for individuals living with HIV/AIDS), disagrees with him. Instead, he advocates for the promotion of the proper utilization of Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) to limit or eliminate viral load transmission.

Hamza Venant Burikukiye, the General Director of Capes+

“HIV treatment is safer and more effective than ever. when taken as prescribed, it can stop the virus from multiplying. Therefore, PLWHs like me must work hand in hand and remind each other to take medication as prescribed because nowadays undetectable equals untransmittable. ” Hamza emphasized.

During the IAS 2023, the 12th IAS Conference on HIV Science held in Brisbane, Australia from 23-26 July,20223,  protesters advocated for the promotion of the Undetectable equals untransmittable known as  (U=U) and they draw the attention of the participants with the following words:” Sex is good, sex is fun, sex is Zero risk. Not saying zero is a violation of Human rights.”They said.

Protestors during the IAS 2023, the 12th IAS Conference on HIV Science held in Brisbane, Australia from 23-26 July,20223

According to the UNAIDS, People living with HIV can lead long and healthy lives by taking medicines that keep the virus undetectable. People who maintain an undetectable viral load for at least six months cannot transmit HIV through sex. This is known as “undetectable equals untransmittable,” or “U=U.”

This UN agency emphasizes that the sooner a person living with HIV starts treatment, the less damage the virus can do to their body. Medicine can reduce the virus in the body to such a low level that it does not show up on tests and cannot be passed through sex. This is known as an undetectable viral load.

The World Health Organization (WHO) adds that U=U enables people living with HIV to stay healthy, maintain their quality of life, and have a lifespan similar to people not living with HIV. U=U can also have enormous benefits in reducing stigma and motivating people living with HIV to test, start, and maintain treatment, become virally suppressed, and continue follow-up care.  

The IAS 2023, the 12th IAS Conference on HIV Science also highlighted that in 2022, a total of 1,300,000.0 new HIV infections worldwide were reported, with 630,000 deaths among the 39 million People Living With HIV/AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to approximately two-thirds (67%) of the global HIV population and also accounts for two-thirds of the new HIV infections. Additionally, in that same year, a total of $20.8 billion was allocated toward HIV programs in low and middle-income countries.

After starting taking ART as prescribed, Noella Niyonkuru says she has seen a huge improvement in her health which had started to deteriorate due to the untested virus.

“I feel healthier, it is as if I did not contract the virus, I call other young to undergo  HIV/AIDS testing the sooner the better to protect themselves and their partners.” She concluded.

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