For the first time ever, the Somali National AIDS Commissiona participated in the 17th International Conference on AIDS in Cape Town, South Africa, last month. With over 7,000 leading scientists, policymakers, government leaders, and people living with HIV/AID in attendance, Somalia was able to showcase their achievements in HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment.
Despite the ongoing conflict in the southern part of Somalia, including differences in Somalia's three zones, which include, Somaliland, Puntland, and south central Somalia, AIDS commissions representing the three areas came together for Africa's largest AIDS conference to showcase their achievements in fighting HIV/AIDS, and to focus on continuing to work together on prevention techniques and reducing the stigma attached to the disease.
The International Organization for Migration, IOM, provided technical and financial support to Somalia AIDS commissions for the conference.
Salma Taher, national program officer for IOM's Migration Health Division, said that for Somalia to be represented for the first time at such an event was an achievement within itself.
"Despite the challenges the Somali's have faced over the past 21 years since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, and despite the fact that there are over one million IDP's in Somalia, HIV research has been ongoing in the country for over a decade," she said."This includes awareness - raising among the key and vulnerable population that are at a higher risk of contracting HIV, as well as among the whole community."
She pointed out that according to a recent WHO report on Somalia, the prevalence of HIV is about 0.9 percent for the entire country, and for south central Somalia, an even lower rate of 0.6 percent.
"In 2007, the HIV prevalence in Somaliland was at 1.3 percent, particularly the port city Berbera in Somaliland, recorded the highest prevalence of 2.7 percent," Taher said. "This higher prevalence in Somaliland is considered to be substantially contributed to-- by trade-driven mobility, interaction with neighboring countries which have a higher HIV prevalence."
Six years ago, a ground breaking epidemiological study was conducted which identified priority populations where the HIV epidemic is concentrated. The data points to high risk concentrations of the population such as sex workers, truck drivers, and uniformed services.
"The first ever HIV Integrated Biological, Behavioral Survey, IBBS, was conducted in Hargesa, jointly by the AIDS commission, IOM and WHO in 2008 which showed a higher HIV prevalence of 5.3 percent of among female sex workers in Hargesa in Somaliland. A follow-up by the IBBS was then undertaken to establish a trend of HIV prevalence amongst this population," explained the IOM representative.
Taher said despite the challenges in creating awareness of HIV/AIDS in Somalia's communities, the government of Somalia in cooperation with the international community has made great strides in sensitizing people to reducing the stigma attached to the disease. Much of this has been done through the training of peer educators on HIV awareness, sexual and gender-based violence awareness, and, conducting HIV sensitization workshops.
Taher emphasized that more work needs to be done in gathering data, especially for central Somalia where fact gathering is difficult.
"The reason for this is general inaccessibility caused by security restrictions," she said. "However through a joint effort of the same partners of the AIDS Commissions, as well as the joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, of which IOM is a member, we are in a phase of contacting groundbreaking research among high-risk groups in all three zones, particularly in the south central Somalia, which will be the first research ever to be conducted in almost 30 years on HIV and AIDS."
She said the hope with additional research is that it will contribute key data towards the development of the new HIV/AIDS national framework for Somalia. And the research will include a focus on high risk populations in Somaliland, Puntland and south central Somalia.