New strategy to curb HIV in Cameroon

By Irene Zih Fon  |  Nov. 14, 2012 at 5:09 PM
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DOUALA, Cameroon (GPI)-- A lot has changed since Dr. Elizabeth Fon Fonong began working as a doctor in Douala, the capital of Cameroon’s Littoral region, almost 30 years ago. “When I started work in 1985 as a young medical doctor, HIV/AIDS was some scary, new disease that we had to deal with,” Fon says. “The first AIDS patient was a curiosity that drew all the doctors in our Laquintinie Hospital to take turns observing her.” Later, as the number of HIV and AIDS cases continued to grow, Fon says she began educating the population with the ABC prevention message: A for abstinence, B for be faithful and C for condoms. “We learned to pass on the ABC of HIV prevention to the population, and evaluation tests revealed that the population could parrot all the right answers at the end of our various workshops,” she says. But the infection rate did not slow in reflection of this increased knowledge, Fon says. She and her husband were stumped by one common question: “Why is it that almost everyone who has attended a workshop or listened to a radio or TV message on HIV prevention can pass a written or oral examination on the subject, but this knowledge is not translated into effective HIV prevention in their marriages or cohabiting relationships?” she recounts. So she started talking and listening to the patients about their stories of HIV transmission in marriage. After hundreds of hours of brainstorming with friends, patients, and married and unmarried people, she and her team at the hospital conceived the TESHO – TE for Team, S for Spirit, HO for Holistic – concept to promote practical techniques to live the ABC principles. They tested the modules with patients and others. After obtaining positive feedback from those they counseled, they decided to go public with the method in 2006. Fon is currently the regional coordinator of the 35 government health centers that care for people suffering from tuberculosis and HIV and AIDS in Littoral. But she is most proud of her title as founder and chief executive officer of TESHO, a foundation she established to educate and counsel people on this strategy. She and her husband now view their 27-year marriage, governed by TESHO principles, as a precious gift from God that they need to share with other families. The foundation disseminates the TESHO program through several methods, including interactive workshops and one-on-one counseling sessions. It translates the ABC approach to HIV prevention from theory into applicable techniques. The Cameroonian public knows its ABCs when it comes to HIV prevention, but trends show people aren’t putting the approach into practice. So one local doctor has developed a program to impart life skills in order to drive behavioral change. Other health professionals say the fresh strategy could reduce HIV transmission. Fon says there was one HIV-positive patient in 1985 in Cameroon's Littoral region, where the population was approximately 1.35 million, according to the Ministry of Economy, Planning and Regional Development’s 1987 census. The number of HIV-positive pateints grew to 133,400 by 2011, with a HIV prevalence rate of 4.6 percent in Littoral, where the population had grown to 2.9 million inhabitants, according to the National Institute of Statistics. The national HIV prevalence rate is 4.3 percent. Yet a Catholic Relief Services 2009 Study on Population and HIV Knowledge revealed that more than 90 percent of the Cameroonian population had given the right answers to questions about methods of HIV prevention, Fon says. The traditional ABC approach to HIV prevention has been around for more than 25 years, Fon says. It offered hope to a population that had previously received scary slogans such as, “Beware, AIDS Kills!”

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