Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

HEALTH-TOGO: Female Condom Offers the Best Protection – AIDS Campaigner

Noel Kokou Tadegnon

LOME, Sep 10 2002 (IPS) - Female condom, which is still new in much of Africa, offers the best protection against AIDS and allows women to negotiate safe sex, says a campaigner.

The campaigner, Sandrine Agbokpe, who is a top model and ‘Miss Togo 2001′, is urging Togolese women ‘’to take charge of their body and use the female condom, femidon”.

‘’Togo has one of the highest HIV-infection rates in West Africa,” says Dr. Lawson Teyi, an epidemiologist with the state-run National Programme Against AIDS (NPAA).

The number of people living with AIDS in Togo, with a population of about five million, had risen from six in 1987 to 13,665 in 2001, according to the NPAA.

A UNAIDS report shows that 20 to 30 percent of the people living with HIV in Togo are students.

Dr. Teyi says 81.5 percent of those who die of AIDS in Togo every year are breadwinners, aged 19-49.

‘’If this trend continues, some regions in Togo will cease to exist in a few years’ time,” Agbokpe warns.

The female condom, which is distributed by the Population Service International, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), costs 500 CFA (around 75 U.S. cents) a packet.

“With this condom, it’s the woman who’ll make the decision,” says Chantal Toublou, a secretary in Lome. “It’s really effective and very comfortable”.

Her colleague, Solime Tchalla, however, thinks that the female condom is too expensive. “The price of femidon should be adjusted downwards, bringing it to the same level as male condoms,” she says. Male condom costs 75 CFA (around 11 U.S. cents) per packet of four.

Florence Blagodji, a teacher in Lome, says the female condom will empower women to negotiate safe sex. “Men often refuse to use condoms and thus increase our risks of infection,” she says.

Women, especially those living in rural areas, lack access to written information on HIV/AIDS.

“We have to be able to say yes or no, according to our wishes,” says Agbokpe.

“We must not allow ourselves to be messed about, because we’re the first victims; AIDS takes a heavy toll, and as soon as we have the virus, our children too are at risk if we get pregnant,” says Afi Bokovi, a student at the University of Lome.

With support from the donors, Agbokpe has developed a plan for a health centre for people living with HIV. Approval for the project has yet to be finalised.

Agbokpe, 23, is a student of business administration in Accra, Ghana and is interested in communication and information technology.

Unhappy with the growing stigmatisation of people living with the disease, Agbokpe says “it’s the role of each of us to provide some affection instead of ostracising those living with HIV/AIDS”.

“People living with HIV are less dangerous than those, around us, whose HIV status is not known, and who continue to pass the virus to others,” Agbokpe says.

“Sandrine (Agbokpe) sends out a strong message. After she came to our school, we continued to ponder about our ignorance about HIV/AIDS and safe sex,” says Celia Nicodem, a secondary school student in Lome.

Agbokpe’s school trips offer an opportunity for students to discuss the disease — which was once regarded as a taboo in Togo — openly. “I very much liked the discussion we had with Sandrine, who responded to all our concerns,” says Koffivi Kokroko, a student in Lome.

“The statistics on the disease that Agbokpe gave us really scared me,” Kokroko says. ‘’According to Agbokpe, one African youth is infected every 15 seconds with the AIDS virus.”

Sub-Saharan Africa is by far the worst affected region in the world. ‘’The estimated 3.4 million new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa in 2001 mean that 28.1 million Africans now live with the virus,” according to the UNAIDS.

The UN AIDS agency says 2.3 million Africans died of AIDS in 2001.

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