President Muhammadu Buhari recently appointed Dr. Gambo Aliyu, as replacement for Dr. Sani Aliyu, who recently resigned as Director General of National Agency for the Control of Aids (NACA) to pursue other interests. In this interview with Saturday Sun, the new helmsman spoke on the recently launched NAIIS report and why Akwa Ibom state has overtaken Benue in the prevalence of HIV/AIDs in the country.
What has happened since after the public presentation of the Nigeria HIV/AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey (NAIIS) report?
The successful completion of the NAIIS survey and subsequent presentation of the report was a turning point as regards the fight against HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. The report produced clear or near precise information that was never available as regard HIV burden in Nigeria. For the records, HIV/AIDS has attracted huge financial and manpower investment in Nigeria in the past 15 years. Records revealed that over $4 billion has been expended on HIV response in Nigeria. Regrettably, we haven’t had the opportunity to measure the impact of the investment until last year when we did NAIIS project. The outcome of the project opened our eyes to so many things. Most instructive of the findings was that the epidemic has shrunk and the burden has contracted in terms of people living with HIV in Nigeria. The report revealed that the HIV burden is less than what we thought it is in the past. In addition to that, it provided a guidance on where to channel our energy and other approaches to use to sustain the achievements.
What level of sensitisation has been done in different states with either high or low prevalence?
From the time the NAIIS report was released till now, a lot of things have happened and more would happen soon. We have distributed the NAIIS preliminary report to state governments and other stakeholders. We have equally engaged some advocacy groups to take the report to the grassroots and ensure that people are properly educated and enlightened about the state of HIV burden in their different states in particular and Nigeria in general. Very soon, other sensitisation activities would commence at different levels and that would help us to consolidate on the gains made so far as confirmed by NAIIS report. We have designed different approaches that would strengthen our campaign on discrimination and stigmatisation which is a huge barrier that we are facing as regards the fight against HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. Discrimination and stigmatisation ought to have been a thing of the past in Nigeria but unfortunately, reverse seems to be the case. HIV has been acknowledged globally as chronic illness and not a death sentence as was being perceived by many people in the past. HIV patients stand a chance of living longer as long as they take their drugs regularly and adhere to advice from doctors.
How effective is the law against stigmatisation and discrimination?
It’s very useful and effective even though not many people are aware of it. However, we have been working with coalition of lawyers and civil society organisations to respond to cases of stigmatisation especially when the cases are taken to court. We always ensure that victims are given free and quality legal services. We also ensure that CSOs and relevant associations like network of people living with HIV offer support to the victims. At NACA, we contact relevant authorities to ensure speedy dispensation of justice and enforcement of court pronouncement. Part of our forthcoming campaign is to ensure that Nigerians are properly educated and enlightened about the law, and possibly distribute copies of the law to people especially those living with HIV. Such action will make them understand that there is a law that protects them and they should take advantage of it. Nigerians would also know that it is a crime to discriminate or stigmatise someone based on his or her HIV status.
The NAIIS report confirmed drop in HIV prevalence. Ordinarily, funding should drop but recently, US government pledged additional funding for the fight. Why?
Yes. It’s a good thing for us. The way HIV is controlled is that you push the prevalence down and possibly push harder to control the epidemic. Controlling the epidemic means that less people are getting infected with the virus. We are not there yet, but we are making good progress. We need more financial commitment to achieve that, and we are hopeful that more funding will come to enable us sustain the momentum. Another strategy is that we would open more offices at the zonal level to enhance advocacy programmes which would soon hit our communities. This will convince Nigerians and stakeholders that we are committed to the fight.
Is the 2030 deadline for global containment of HIV/AIDS realistic?
Yes. Nigeria will shock the world. From all indications, we might control the virus before the 2030 global deadline.
The NAIIS report released earlier in the year was the preliminary report. When is the main report coming?
We are looking towards the end of September. That was the timeline we agreed with the funders of the project and other implementing partners. We are all working hard to ensure that the project is completed within timeline.
Akwa Ibom, unfortunately, took over from Benue as state with high prevalence. What could be responsible?
What that change means was that Nigerians, especially people of Benue state are more sensitive to the issue of HIV/AIDS. They are taking the drugs religiously and it’s working. When people take drugs, their viral load drops and gets under control. Regular intake of drugs helps patients to live and look healthy. That’s why we always call on Nigerians to know their HIV status and begin early treatment if the result shows positive. The treatment is effective, reduces the virus in the patient and makes it less likely to transmit the virus to others.
Are there plans for other efforts like NAIIS to address the scourge?
We are hoping that it will be done in another three years. But that would depend on how we work to justify the billions of dollars that have been invested in the fight against HIV in the past 15 years. We would soon embark on vigorous campaign to educate and enlighten Nigerians, and make them understand that HIV is not as deadly as people make it look. The available drugs have succeeded in weakening the virus and we are very close to controlling it.
What is your assessment of the new UNAIDS leadership?
The appointment of new head of UNAIDS is the exclusive right of the United Nations and they have their criteria for selection and the qualities they want in anybody. In such a position with high global responsibility and expectations, there are always competitors. Most of the applicants would be qualified but only the UN decides who takes up the job based on certain factors and consideration. They have appointed Winnie Byanyima as its new Executive Director. Our duty is to support the new person, work closely with her to control global HIV burden, with more interest in Nigeria.
What kind of relationship do you have with the umbrella body of people living with HIV in Nigeria and other stakeholders?
Very good so far and I am optimistic that it will continue like that. Howbeit, I have been relating with the umbrella body of HIV patients in Nigeria for almost two decades now (20 years). I have been working with them and we have come a long way. Howbeit, NACA is totally committed to their welfare and better living. They have been helpful and supportive too, particularly in giving hope to newly infected persons. We have realised that no one can speak better or talk to newly infected person like someone living with the virus. So, we use them greatly in that regard.
What do you want to be remembered for at the end of your tenure?
I want it to be on record that during my tenure as NACA Director General, HIV burden dropped drastically. Most importantly, I want to get HIV epidemic under serious control.
Is the war against the scourge winnable?
Nigeria is already winning the war against HIV. The prevalence has dropped from 4.4% in 2005 to 1.4% in 2018 and the number of people living with HIV has dropped from about 3.5 to 1.9 million over the same period. Fewer Nigerians are getting new infection and death due to HIV is decreasing. This trend will continue as long as we continue to make HIV drugs free and people learn more about HIV prevention.
What’s your favorite holiday destination?
Here (Nigeria) is my favourite place for holidays. I travel from far to come home for holiday.
With your schedule of work, do you ever have time to unwind?
Yes, I do have time to unwind especially on weekends.
Do you love sports and what game do you do?
Yes, I love sports and football is my favourite.
Do you have preference for any food I like my local delicacy, tuwo da miyan kuka.