South Sudan's Ministry of Health says only 6,800 people living with HIV are currently receiving treatment, less than half the number of people who enrolled for treatment a year ago.
Around 16,000 patients registered for free antiretroviral therapy in 2013, which is low compared to the 150,000 people believed to be living with the disease in the world's newest nation. But many who registered have not continued with treatment which is supposed to be for life.
Dr Emmanuel Oryem from the HIV/AIDS department in the Ministry of Health attributes this to a lack of knowledge about the disease and the importance of treatment. "Many people stop the treatment after they start to feel better. When they feel strong again they think everything is okay," he said. He also cited the fact that there is a high rate of stigma that prevents many people from getting tested and receiving treatment.
Lack of HIV knowledge
The high rate of discrimination and stigma against people living with HIV is a major hindrance in expanding antiretroviral services to all patients in the country. Dr Oryem told New Nations Journalist Daniel Sebit that in 2010 only 9.5 per cent of women countrywide had a comprehensive knowledge of HIV and AIDS.
Samuel Tamateo Bandasi, Western Equatoria state director of HIV/AIDS, said that it is advisable for patients to come out openly about their status so that the government and stakeholders can help them wherever necessary.
Bandasi stressed that antiretroviral therapy services are to be found all over the ten state capitals with the exception of Bor, Malakal and Bentiu which have suffered armed conflict since December 2013. Bandasi also pointed out that some churches in the state tend to teach people not to take antiretrovirals claiming that they can heal patients living with HIV, which he denounced as nonsense.
He gave the example of Mary, from Yambio, who claims to be a prophetess sent by God to heal people living with different illnesses, including HIV.
"It's been said that Mary tells her followers to abandon taking their antiretroviral therapy and to stick to prayers so that they will get well. This practice, which is decried by the state authorities, has led to the death of many of her followers," Bandasi said.
Church hinders HIV response
Some churches in the state also preach against the use of condoms which then exposes people to a high risk of contracting HIV.
As one young person explained: "Many people don't go for treatment when they find out they're living with HIV and instead they isolate themselves from the rest of the community and will never visit the VCT [voluntary counselling and testing] centre again. I would rather die than go for antiretroviral therapy, how will my friends see me? What are people going to say about me, it's much better for me to die."
This attitude is common among young people in Yambio, who refuse to visit VCT centres for fear of being found HIV positive. The International HIV/AIDS Alliance is helping to reach young people in the state of Western Equatoria through various partners including the YMCA and the Change Agency Association Yambio who are mobilizing young people through clubs and activities connected to HIV and AIDS awareness. The YMCA, with the support of the Alliance in South Sudan, has encouraged many young people to test and to take their antiretroviral medication.