Burkina Faso: Weaker focus on prevention may lead to higher HIV transmission rates in young people

| February 1, 2021

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In Burkina Faso, efforts to prevent HIV transmission have decreased recently, which may be leading to less awareness and higher infection rates amongst young people. Many youth in the country believe that by avoiding sexual relations, they can’t be infected. Too many don't know how to protect themselves, where to go for testing, where to go if they are infected, and don’t systematically screen themselves. Those who test positive often discover their status during medical appointments for other infections. HIV is rebounding in the country. While the state is still focused on HIV, it prioritizes care of HIV-positive people to the detriment of efforts to prevent new transmissions.

Pierre Sioho is 21 and works delivering water in the city of Bobo Dioulasso, in western Burkina Faso. He has only bits and pieces of information about HIV and AIDS. He vaguely remembers the information he received through the media when he was little. He says, “I know that AIDS is a deadly disease. It is caused by the lack of hygiene when you eat with dirty hands or when you wash poorly.” But apart from jingles on HIV and AIDS, he doesn’t get much information about the disease these days.

This ignorance is one reason why infection rates are rising among youth in western Burkina Faso.

The AIDS prevalence rate is 0.7% in Burkina Faso. But the epidemic is experiencing a rebound, especially amongst youth. According to the World Health Organization, more than 500 youth between 14 and 20 are infected by HIV every day globally. According to the 2019 UNAIDS report for Burkina Faso, the prevalence among 16-24 year-olds is 0.4% for females and 0.3% for males. The resurgence was noted in 2012 and has been attributed to a relaxation of preventative measures.

Like Mr. Sioho, the majority of youth in the West Region of Burkina Faso ignore HIV and AIDS and the ways in which it can be transmitted.

Sylvie Sanou is a student at Bobo Dioulasso secondary school. She is 16, but can name only one method of transmitting the HIV virus: sexual relations. She says she has never been interested in a medical screening. She adds: “I haven’t been tested for HIV yet because I have never had a boyfriend in my life. Indeed, I hear people talk about sexual ‘tontine’ where old men offer girls money in exchange for sexual intercourse. But these are rich people’s children who do this. My mother told me to get my high school diploma, and nothing else. So I don’t have anything to do with boys.”

But it’s more than just sexual relations that can lead to the transmission of HIV. The virus can be contracted from a blood transfusion, and by handling infected objects such as needles, blades, and knives. If infected, a mother can also pass the virus to her child during birth.

Boukary Diallo is an unemployed 23-year-old in Bobo Dioulasso. He also has little knowledge about this subject. He says, “To have a girlfriend, you need money. Which I don’t have because I don’t have a job. So why do I need to worry?”

This ignorance is partially a result of a decline in preventive activities. In effect, the state and its partners are prioritizing care of HIV-positive people to the detriment of prevention. There is less and less money to fight the spread of HIV.

But schools still focus on raising awareness. Sara Bagre is an 18-year-old student and appears to be up-to-date on HIV and AIDS. She explains: “In class, teachers tell us about the disease, and it scares me a lot because of the stigma that infected people often face. I get tested every month because I know sex is not the only way of transmitting this disease. “

In Bobo Dioulasso, 15% of HIV-positive people have been identified by the medical centre at the NGO Responsabilité Espoir Vie Solidarité (REV pLus). Martine Somba is the president of the board of directors of the NGO. She says: “I see 12, 13, and 14 year-old children already infected. Put yourself in the place of the mother of this child of 12 who will have to carry it all their life, the weight of a chronic disease. It hurts, it hurts a lot.”

Omar Sanou is the head of the national council for the fight against HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. He says there is no longer a major prevention campaign like there was in the peak years of the disease, such as 1995 to 2000. But activities and discussions continue in an effort to eradicate the disease by 2030, in line with United Nations’ targets.

Mr. Sanou adds that, to achieve this objective, Burkina Faso has drawn up a new framework called the “final framework,” which will soon be approved. He defends the government’s strategy of emphasizing care in an effort to break the chain of transmission. He says that, contrary to what people say, the issue of HIV and AIDS is being tackled head on. Since 2016, the budget for these activities has increased by 5% each year.

This article was produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the project “Promoting health, sexual and reproductive rights, and nutrition among adolescents in Burkina Faso (ADOSANTE).” The ADOSANTE project is led by a consortium including Helen Keller International, Marie Stopes-Burkina Faso (MS/BF), Farm Radio International, the Centre d’information de Conseils et de Documentation sur le Sida et la Tuberculeuse (CICDoc), and the Réseau Afrique Jeunesse Santé et Développement (RAJS).