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Written by Simon Musasizi

As a young girl in senior one, Zamzam Sakila, out of curiosity, decided to take an HIV test in 2001. A team of HIV/AIDS counsellors had come to Kuru Secondary School in Yumbe district where she was a student.

For a 13-year-old whose dream was to become a nurse, this exercise was not because she doubted herself. First of all, she was a virgin and was confident she was HIV negative. To her surprise, however, the results indicated that she was HIV positive. But this did not mean much to her and she innocently went around telling her colleagues about her status. The news, however, did not get to her father until she was about to sit her O-level examinations when someone told him.

The old man got angry and threatened to throw Sakila out of his home. He swore not to continue paying school fees for someone destined for death, leaving her stranded after senior four.

“Life was hard. Everyone shunned me; they didn’t want to talk to me. I started falling sick and nobody cared to take me for treatment. They gave up on me,” Sakila, now 23, recalls.

“My father would dissuade anyone who wanted to come to my rescue, saying I was HIV positive.”

It is only when the examination results were released that Sakila’s door opened. She had performed well and her uncle agreed to pay her A-level tuition fees. But even then, he always regretted his decision to pay school fees for someone who was always complaining of illness.

“He would beat me to the extent that I had to abandon school in senior five for three months,” Sakila says.

Matters worsened when her uncle’s daughter got pregnant. She was Sakila’s age and they always moved together, raising suspicion that Sakila had a hand in her cousin’s fate. Her uncle battered her, leaving a broken arm. Sakila left the home. She ended up in Kampala, where she stayed with an aunt in Mbuya. It is here that she heard of Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS initiative.

Reach Out enrolled her for a diploma in counselling at YMCA in Wandegeya. Today, Sakila is employed at Reach Out offices in Mbuya as a pharmacy supporter. “Reach Out has made me strong. Without it, I don’t know where I would have ended because I knew the next step was death,” she says.

Dr Stella Alamo Talisuna, Reach Out’s executive director, says Sakila is one of the 1,200 vulnerable children that the organisation looks after. Talisuna says young people need a lot of support to openly talk about their status. Many of such children were born with the virus about 20 years ago. Worse, some of them don’t know their status because their parents hid it from them.

“There have been so many conflicting ideas on how to manage children either born with HIV or infected with HIV early in life,” Talisuna says.

“One of the challenges is when to disclose to the child that they are HIV positive.”

Talisuna cites a child in her care who started treatment at two and became 18 without knowing her status because her parents refused to disclose it to him.

“Now, how do you control the sexual activity of such a child? And, indeed even the existing policies are not clear on when and how you disclose to a child that they are positive.

“So, many of these children are transmitting the virus unknowingly because they are getting into relationships just like anybody else,”  Talisuna notes.

The Reach Out programme has integrated prevention programmes, emphasising abstinence for youth below 18.

“Remember, in the 1980s children had sex at 18; so, we had a big proportion of children born HIV negative protected until they reached adulthood to make their own decisions,” she explained.

Barclays bank has, over the years, supported Reach Out activities. Between 2008 and 2009, the bank contributed Shs 80m to the cause. The money is spent on accommodation, feeding, ARVs and empowerment of affected children.

“We are trying to address those barriers that hinder access to healthcare. We all know that when someone is poor and they don’t have transport to a health centre, they wouldn’t have access to drugs. If someone has no food at home and you provide them with ARVs, then they won’t take those ARVs.

“Yet ARVs require 100% adherence. But also if a mother is HIV positive and the children at home don’t have school fees, the attention is going to be on that and healthcare becomes secondary,” says Talisuna.

Source: The Obsever