Being healthy is a joy: Nigerian adolescents are making HIV undetectable

{Photo credit: Aor Ikyaabo/MSH}Abdulkadir Kayode is an active member and leader in his adolescents-only support group.Photo credit: Aor Ikyaabo/MSH

Five years ago, 17-year-old Abdulkadir Kayode was diagnosed with HIV and too ill to attend school. He had lost his parents to HIV-related illnesses and was shunned by his classmates and neighbors for his condition. Today, Abdulkadir has achieved viral suppression, is attending school every day, and dreams of becoming a soccer player and successful businessman. This transformation took place after he joined an adolescent support group established with support from the Care and Treatment for Sustained Support (CaTSS) Project in Nigeria, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and implemented by MSH. Abdulkadir is one of more than 200 young adolescents in the region to have benefited from such groups.

Adolescents represent a growing share of people living with HIV in Nigeria. Among adolescents and young adults, there is particular concern for orphans like Abdulkadir, who also suffer from the social and economic effects of HIV. For many adolescents living with HIV, staying on antiretroviral treatment (ART) can be heavily influenced by their family and community’s response to their status, the availability of adolescent-friendly services at local health facilities, and the psychosocial support they receive from health care workers.

In Kwara state, the CaTSS Project worked with local government and partners to mitigate the physical, emotional, and economic impacts of HIV and AIDS on adolescents, and to reduce their vulnerability while increasing their resilience.

Five years ago, Abdulkadir moved to Kwara after losing his parents. He was enrolled in school but missed multiple days at a time. When his caregiver brought him to the clinic, he learned of his HIV positive status. At just 12 years old, his classmates and neighbors avoided him because of skin rashes—he felt completely isolated. Abdulkadir was then enrolled in ART and on one of his clinic visits, he learned of the Alafiatayo support group for adolescents living with HIV.

Working with country partners, CaTSS instituted an adolescents-only support group at the General Hospital Omuaran, one of the Comprehensive Care and Treatment Centers supported by CaTSS in Kwara state. Alafiatayo means “being healthy is a joy,” and every month the group brings together young HIV-positive boys and girls between the ages of 10 to 19, offering a safe space and trusted source of information and support. Members participate in group activities, which include health talks, games, counseling, and psychosocial support. They receive ART refills and are encouraged to ensure that all routine tests, including their HIV viral load, are not missed. Alafiatayo hosts a WhatsApp group—where information, reminders, and other related notices are shared—and even offers continuous adherence counseling through phone calls for members enrolled in boarding schools.

Abdulkadir decided to become an active member of the Alafiatayo support group, so he could meet other children who were having similar experiences. He is one of 24 adolescents (9 boys and 15 girls) who were identified as pioneer members and potential leaders of the group. They were mentored on becoming peer counselors and group executives by two dedicated adults living with HIV, selected from an adults’ support group in the same facility. The members agreed that only those who achieved an undetectable level of HIV would be elected as permanent executives. Six months later, the adolescents elected their peers to run the affairs of their group with minimal mentorship and supervision from adult mentors. Abdulkadir became the group’s Public Relations Officer; other executives included a Group Coordinator, Secretary, Social Officer, and Financial Secretary and Treasurer.

The Alafiatayo support group has been successful in ensuring HIV is suppressed among its young members, protecting them from HIV-related illnesses and making them much less likely to pass the virus to their sexual partners or unborn children. By March 2018, the group achieved 100% viral suppression, up from 79% a year earlier, and 80% of members had an undetectable viral load. Today, membership in the adolescent-only support group continues to grow, as young people increasingly take charge of their health and wellbeing. 

Olafumbo Adesiyan, a case manager and one of the members from the adult support group who mentored Abdulkadir and other adolescents, proudly speaks of the power of these support groups:  “I love doing this work; it is my life now. It gives me great joy when I see people living with HIV, especially adolescents, doing well on ART. This enables them to take charge of their life and well-being and contribute meaningfully to the welfare of their families....”

Since adhering to his ART therapy, Abdulkadir’s skin rashes have disappeared and he is able to eat full meals. In addition to developing friendships with other children in the support group, he now attends school regularly. “Belonging to this support group is one of the best things that has happened to me,” says Abdulkadir. “I am now a mentor to other adolescents, and they look up to me as a role model. I am encouraging all the young people living with HIV to learn from our support group and use our lessons to better their lives.”