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Campaigners Fear Lock-down Could Affect Gains Made In HIV Fight

Sex workers living with HIV in Uganda have stopped taking their medication because of a lack of food and income as restrictions have left them with no clients.

The government has been giving food aid to some of those who are most affected by the restrictions that have been in place for two months.

But Joelia Namiiro, an HIV sex worker, says she has had to make difficult choices to feed her family, which means defying the rules.

“You wake up in the morning and the children are crying that they are hungry; they didn’t have supper.

“Do you think you will just sit at home? You have to take risks, and leave the rest to God.

“I have been risking it, and going out to work, because I must feed my children. My children will not die because I am worried about catching Covid-19.”

The 30-year-old mother of four has also stopped taking her anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs because she cannot take them on an empty stomach.

She feels the government has abandoned those living with other illnesses and focused on Covid-19.

According to official figures, HIV prevalence among sex workers is at 37% compared to a national average of just 5.7%.

Uganda has brought its HIV prevalence down by focusing on vulnerable groups like sex workers.

Dr Stephen Watiti, a renowned HIV campaigner, fears that the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic may reverse the gains made in the fight against HIV.

Several sex workers he has counselled in the past have reached out asking for support.

Some say they have stopped taking their drugs, while others only take them when they have food.

“We tell our patients, that you must eat something, before you swallow medicine. And indeed, I’ve been on medicine for over 20 years now – ARVs. And if you don’t eat and then swallow, it hurts you,” he says.

In the first two weeks of the lockdown in March, more than 100 sex workers were arrested by the police across the country, for going out to work, according to their association.

Most have since been released.

But for the women in the Bwaise suburb of the capital, Kampala, and elsewhere, arrest is the least of their worries. Many are ready to risk their lives.

BBC

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