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Red ribbons: HIV discrimination in Tanzania?

A number of schools in the Kibaha district of Tanzania, north-west of the capital, have implemented a system where pupils living with HIV identify themselves with a red ribbon.

According to a BBC journalist based in Dar es Salaam, the situation has caused anger among health campaigners in the country. The chairperson of the Kibaha Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS told the BBC the practice was not only unethical but illegal, because “there are laws that can punish those revealing other’s health status”.

Heads of the schools defended their actions by explaining that the introduction of the red ribbons was made at the request of parents. Families of sufferers have been concerned their children should be excused tasks or physical activities which may affect their health. The ribbon was therefore designed to alert teachers to children living with HIV/AIDS, so they were not asked to perform duties such as fetching water or sweeping school yards.

According to the UNAIDS 2010 report, there were around 200,000 children (under 15) living with HIV/AIDS in 2009. Among the adult population of Tanzania (15-49 years), 5.6% of people or around 1.2 million people have contracted the disease, with deaths in 2009 estimated at 86,000.

However, national surveys show the prevalence of the disease is declining significantly among young men and women thanks to a number of programmes. Pregnant women are being offered anti-retroviral treatment to reduce the number of children born with the disease. And under a government programme (backed by the US and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria) men and young boys can opt to be circumcised free of charge. Trials conducted in three African countries suggested that male circumcision could cut a man’s risk of becoming infected with HIV through heterosexual intercourse by as much as 60%.

There is also some evidence that the use of antiretroviral drugs may reduce infection (though further study is needed). According to the government’s country progress report in 2010, only a fifth of infected Tanzanians currently have access to antiretroviral treatment. But this situation is likely to improve this year with the building of a new pharmaceutical plant in northern Tanzania which will manufacture antiretroviral drugs locally. According to a recent PlusNews article, commercial production of the drugs is expected to start in the next few months, helping to widen access to treatment.

Though there are many positive steps being made, campaigners still argue that health and awareness messages need to be improved, particularly among the young. But the campaigners are all in agreement that asking school pupils to wear red ribbons is definitely not one of the ways to do this.