Innocent Okello is a Senior Medical Clinical Officer living in Lira City, Uganda, and working at Lira Regional Referral Hospital, where he delivers HIV services, and manages children and adolescent clients. Innocent’s current journey in public health began in 2017, when he first volunteered at an ART clinic. His experiences there would fundamentally change his life.
“In 2018 we lost one of our young adolescents. He was very active and open to any health worker on issues concerning his health. Unfortunately, he met a friend who deceived him and took him to a pastor who promised him that he will be healed completely from the HIV virus if the pastor prayed for him. He stopped taking his medication and kept it a secret from everyone. When he finally opened up, it was too late to help him. This taught me that I always have a debt to pay. Someone may be alive just because I can be there to support. It’s about knowing you are there for a purpose and that purpose is to save lives,” he says.
Just a year after that tragic incident, Innocent first met Jacqualine and her infant daughter. . Jacqualine is a young mother and peer supporter at Lira Regional Referral Hospital and both her and her daughter are living with HIV. The daughter’s father sadly passed away.
“The day I was told that I was positive I was shocked and couldn’t believe it. Swallowing medicine for the rest of my life was difficult to believe. Also, the public image, how would they see me? Here, once they get to know you are HIV positive, they think you are a living coffin,” she says. “People think that by being near me, they will become infected with HIV, and that makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Jacqualine’s first experience trying to get health care did not go very well. Nervous for her daughter, and when trying to get her medicine, a local health provider shouted at her for not following procedure. This scared Jacqualine and she did not come back for a few weeks.
“I had given up. I stopped even swallowing the medicine. But when I met Innocent, his approach to help me to understand the benefits of HIV care and treatment. His concern for my health and that of my child was ongoing. This helped me improve my adherence. When they next checked my viral load, it was suppressed. He also makes sure we meet our appointments, with calls and reminders, so that we do not miss out.”
Isaac, a young person living with HIV, volunteers as a peer supporter at Lira Regional Referral Hospital.
“I have lived with HIV since I was born, but I only found out when I was 11 years old. I faced a lot of discrimination in school, and they used to call me the ‘walking coffin’.”
What are some of the challenges that Isaac identifies?
“Stigma is still very common in my community, but there are other challenges, such as poverty-stricken single parents, families headed by children, and families that cannot afford to eat. Many people are not living openly and positively. I witnessed one adolescent who joined street kids because of stigma.”
Innocent has seen substandard care given to many people living with HIV, such as providers rushing through their check-ups, treating them last, and sending them to referral doctors unnecessarily. Moreover, the impact of stigma has lasting effects.
“Patients who feel affected by stigma will often have their routines interrupted (IIT). This a real, challenge, as with a high viral load they are more infectious and can transmit HIV to others and it can also lead to higher drug resistance which will make future treatment more difficult Every year patients are being switched to the second and third line of treatment. Most third line ARVs are expensive,” says Innocent.
He adds that young people face challenges in accessing healthcare in the private setting, as they are often stigmatized and treated differently, often ostracized and ignored. Some are discouraged to get married, and in the community, some are even denied entry from family property.. Another major issue is sexual exploitation, where older men will exploit young adolescent girls at their will.
But Jacqualine believes that Innocent is the perfect candidate for a Health Provider Champion because he is understanding, acknowledges our difficulties and fights against this status quo.
“Innocent gives us constant counselling, giving me strength and hope. He is kind and speaks to me nicely, and always makes time for us. An important lesson he has taught me is to also be respectful to other mothers, who are experiencing what I am experiencing.”
Isaac has also nominated Innocent as a Health Provider Champion.
“During the time that I was very sick, he cared for me, made sure I got drugs and food. He is very friendly, keeps me on my treatment, and constantly reminds me of the importance of adherence.”
Innocent feels good about the nomination, saying that it gives him courage.
“I feel have I bigger family whom I care for. It’s not just prescribing medicine but doing something different in a person’s or people’s lives. I am rich with what I love to do and that is saving lives.”