Thursday, 20 May 2010

The 5th National Conference on HIV/AIDS in Abuja

We will not be surprised if you did not hear that the 5th National Conference on HIV/AIDS held in Abuja on the 2 - 5th of May. There were just a handful of articles in the print media and almost nothing on radio and TV. Yes - there is growing apathy in the country - but with an estimated 3 million Nigerian adults infected, the pandemic has hardly receded. So when Nkem Chineme told me she was travelling with her group of colleagues from the University of Ibadan for the conference in Abuja - we inevitable jumped on ask her to write a personal account of the conference. Faithful readers of this blog will remember her excellent report from the ICASA in Senegal. 


This is her story.... enjoy and reflect....


I recently attended the 5th National Conference on HIV/AIDS in Abuja, Nigeria, May 2-5. It was my first national conference in Nigeria, so I had nothing else to really compare it to except take it for what it was or other international conferences, especially the most recent ICASA conference in Dakar, Senegal.

All in all, I was impressed on my first day of attendance at how many people attended the 9am plenary session. Although we had to wait in long security lines to get into the conference center, causing a one hour delay of all sessions, the crowd was very engaged and in full attendance.

Unfortunately, there were several events on the Saturday before the official start of the conference, and early Sunday (May 1 and 2), although the conference officially begun May 2. And since the conference program was only put on the website a few days before May 1, most people I spoke to did not know about these earlier skills building sessions that took place all day Saturday and Sunday.

The theme of the conference, “Ownership and Sustainability” was resonated in the plenary sessions of May 3 and 4. On May 3, it primarily focused on the role of the government in sustaining HIV/AIDS programs in Nigeria, while on May 4, the session was largely clinical, with most of the panel made up of PEPFAR staff/affiliates.

I have to say, for a national conference, the presence of non-international affiliated Nigerian researchers and the publicity within Nigeria were minimal. I am not sure if there is a rule against having banners at the conference center, but there was none anywhere outside the conference premises that would alert people about conference – although there was on site registration. Also, there was nothing on the television advertising the conference, except for a few seconds of mentioning it during the 9 o’clock news regarding what one government official might have said. The new Minister for Health was only appointed/confirmed a few days before the start of the conference, so probably was engaged in other things, because he was not present at the conference any of the days I attended.

Personally, I would say the conference was well organized with regards to having things close together and having shuttle buses that took people to the Chelsea hotel, Abuja, which was a second venue for the conference. There was constant electric power supply (PHCN or generator) and a large number of people attended.

However, from some of the questions raised during Q&A sessions, and the response from audience members in support of some questions, such as when there was applause to a question about doing away with ARVs and focusing on “our” traditional herbs. Apparently someone (who I didn’t catch his name) had proven years ago that these herbs work, but they have been ignored by the medical world. The ignorance of the question – especially since he begun by saying “prevention is better than cure” so the herbs should be used rather than ARVs – was disturbing. And from my studies, which we presented the findings of at the conference, several people believe that bathing with or rubbing several herbs after intercourse will prevent infection from the AIDS virus. But what was also more disturbing was the loud applause from the audience in support of what the man said.

One issue that I would have liked as a focus of the conference is Stigma. There is a serious problem with stigma and stigma in man ways in driving the epidemic more than anything else. It was also somewhat evident at the conference – in my opinion. For instance, when I visited the exhibition area, I went around looking at who was there, and also looking for those providing HIV testing services. At ICASA, 2 or 3 exhibitions stands had testing services at their stands and I have seen that at other conferences, but there was none here. I roamed the conference grounds and far off in one corner of the conference center grounds, there were four or so obscure tents. Without going close to them and actually asking what happens here, you would never know they were testing areas. A tent for an event planner advertising at the conference was much closer and more visible than the HIV testing tents at an HIV/AIDS conference.

Overall, from questions that were asked, there is still widespread anger towards the Nigerian government with regards to their response to HIV and AIDS. Some directly addressed the former Minister for Health during one of the plenary sessions asking him to account for what exactly he had done to address the AIDS epidemic in Nigeria while he was NACA DG and most recently Minister for Health. In addition, we had all received a free newspaper at the conference and the headline on one of the days was “Senators demand N43bn annual allowance.” This is outside of furniture allowance and housing and all what not. It comes out to something like N100million each quarterly or something like that. But at the same time, there we were proudly being told how the 2010 budget included N5bn for the Ministry of Health and NACA together, with majority going to HIV/AIDS, with an expectation for an applause. One woman couldn’t help herself but to say “Shame on the government!” According to her, we keep talking about what external donors are contributing to addressing the AIDS problem in Nigeria, but what has Nigeria ever given any other country to address AIDS, when some people in government are collecting large sums for allowances?



In my personal opinion, the conference was relatively well organized, but for future conferences, it would be nice to see a larger presence of Nigerian researchers (outside of those related to PEPFAR or other international institutions). There was very little of that, especially none from the University of Nigeria, Enugu, where I used to work. I hope for the next conference, the focus will include addressing stigma, all SACAs across the country will be required to give presentations on what they are doing within their states to address HIV and AIDS. But all in all  - a good conference.

To the right is Professor Idoko, DG of NACA. A few more pictures from the conference below.






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