By Anjan Sundaram
KIGALI, Rwanda, 26 October 2011 – Ange, a 15-year-old student in Rwanda, says she still feels sad when she remembers that she has HIV. But when she meets with her peer support group and other teens who share her problems, she can dream once again of becoming a minister, or even the president of her country.
‘I used to feel lonely with my infection,’ but because of this programme at TracPlus, I spend time with others who are just like me, and who are happy. I know I will be as happy as some of them one day.”
Over 22,000 children and young people live with HIV in Rwanda. Many, even though they may be on medication, do not know their status; nor do they all have access to adolescent friendly treatment and care services. They are also at an age of experimentation, where they lack comprehensive knowledge on how to protect themselves and/or their partners, which is why adolescents alone account for 40% of new HIV infections in the country.
To tackle these issues, UNICEF has been supporting a clinic in Kigali, called TracPlus, to model an appropriate package of services to adolescents who live with HIV.
At present, 730 children and adolescents are enrolled at the clinic, where they are helped to gradually understand and deal with their positive status.
‘The children sometimes have very negative reactions,’ explains Melanie Muhizi, a coordinator for paediatric care at TracPlus. ‘Some wonder why they are living, why they take medicines every day, or if they will ever be cured.’
But fortunately, with UNICEF support, the clinic has educators, psychologists and child health experts who use a variety of means to educate and guide both children and adolescents, not only to adhere to treatment regimens, but to understand what they have and how they can stay healthy.
“Because of the support they get here, many of these children and young people are able to lead very normal lives,” says Muhizi. “They make remarkable progress; I am particularly proud of one boy who went through our programme and is now the head of his own construction company,” she smiles.
Other children have also ‘graduated’ from the programme to become peer educators, many who now serve as role models for the children currently going through the programme.
‘When I came here to join the adolescent peer support group at Trac, I met kids from my school who I didn’t know had HIV, like me. It made me feel positive, that I can also be happy,’ said David, a 13-year-old student. “I want to be a successful businessman. I will keep taking my medicines and stay well because I want to do well at school.’