Published on January 7th, 2014 | by Publisher, Natural Awakenings Central New Jersey


Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa: Our HIV-Free Campaign

by Taylor Dempsey

According to Peace Corps, HIV/AIDS work has been falling off in East Africa. No one’s quite sure why, but we think it has something to do with the idea that it’s an “overdone” topic. However, the fact remains that though people may be getting talked at about HIV, whether in schools or health centers or elsewhere, some pretty preposterous and dangerous myths still exist. Like, for example, that if you wash immediately after sex you can’t contract the virus. Or that positive people can be cured by sleeping with a virgin. Additionally, stigma associated with HIV continues to be a huge problem, discouraging people from getting tested and disclosing their status.

Recent years have actually seen a rise in infection rates in Uganda, a disheartening trend in a country thought to be the continent’s leading force in fighting this epidemic, and in a day when starting antiretroviral therapy (ART) early (at CD4 count <250) reduces transmission rates by up to 96%. The American government’s response to this enigma has been to provide a whole lot of PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) funding to us.

I was appointed to the National HIV Strategic Planning Team, and our first task was to use a chunk of the money to train every PC Volunteer and a Ugandan from their community through a series of four regional workshops. Our first one was in November.
The goal of the training is to give participants the most up to date information on HIV, as well as innovative ways of applying this information in their villages, even if they’re not health volunteers. The virus is incredibly complex and there’s always something new to learn: this was my first time hearing about “super infection,” the introduction of a second strain of the virus when two positive partners have unprotected sex, which greatly complicates that patient’s case and may make antiretrovirals (ARV) ineffective.

At the workshop we also had the opportunity to roll out a new HIV toolkit that we’ve been compiling for months. Every volunteer received a year-long HIV/AIDS curriculum, supplemented by locally produced materials to make each lesson as interactive and exciting as possible. My favorite is Game for the World, an HIV-in-Uganda-specific critical thinking board game for youth.
So, workshop 1 was a success. Now we have three more to go before the end of March. On top of planning these events, our team members are the HIV point people for PC Uganda—we provide support for all relevant projects, put together grants, mobilize volunteers, etc. We’re currently in the midst of writing a charter, and once that’s approved we’ll be recognized as an official programming body by headquarters. This project is going to take up a good portion of my second year of service, and I couldn’t be happier: a change of pace to keep things interesting!

Thanks for reading!

Questions and comments welcome at taylordempsey9@gmail.com.

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