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Bound by love, a wedding ring, AIDS

A Nigerian program encourages HIV-positive couples to marry, with the

March 08, 2009|Katy Pownall | Pownall writes for the Associated Press.

BAUCHI, NIGERIA — With her golden dress shimmering in the sun and ornate henna tattoos covering her hands, Hauwa Idris is the picture of a radiant Nigerian bride. But her betrothal has hardly been typical: Both bride and groom are infected with the deadly AIDS virus and have been encouraged to wed by an unusual government program.

Bauchi state, in Nigeria's heavily Muslim north, has recently begun playing Cupid with its HIV sufferers, encouraging them to marry by offering counseling and cash toward their big day. The goal: to halt the spread of HIV in the noninfected population.

"We live in a polygamous society where divorce is common and condom use is low," says Yakubu Usman Abubakar, an official working with the Bauchi Action Committee on AIDS, which runs the program. "If we can stop those who have the disease spreading it to those who don't have the disease, then obviously it will come under control."

The plan had seen 93 HIV-positive couples married since its inception about two years ago. Idris, 32, and her beaming husband, Umar Ahmed, 39, are couple No. 94.

"I'm very happy to see my wedding day," Idris said with a shy laugh. "I never expected I was going to marry because of my [HIV] status. But now I am happy and thank God that now we have a solution . . . we can marry within ourselves."

Idris and Ahmed's eyes first met across a crowded clinic waiting room as they lined up to collect their antiretroviral medication. They exchanged phone numbers and the courtship began.

Two months later, Ahmed asked Idris' parents for her hand in marriage. It was granted and a dowry of $68 agreed upon.

As an incentive to follow through with the wedding, the Bauchi group contributed $225 toward the cost of setting up house, no small amount in a country where more than half the population lives on $1 a day.

The state doesn't seek to introduce HIV-infected people to one another, since that would mean disclosing private information, but when officials hear of HIV-positive lovers, they step in quickly to encourage a legal union.

About 4 million of Nigeria's 140 million people are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, the second-largest HIV population in the world, according to Britain's foreign development agency. And although prevalence rates have dropped slightly in the last three years to about 4%, health experts warn that the country still has a lot of work to do to bring the epidemic under control.

Bauchi is the only one of Nigeria's 36 states known to have such a program. In a society where HIV sufferers are stigmatized, these "positive marriages" provide more than just companionship.

"We have such a close bond," says Usman Ziko, 42, of his relationship with wife Hannah, 32. Money from the Bauchi plan allowed them to marry in October, after an 18-month courtship that began in the corridors of the clinic.

"It was a flamboyant affair," Hannah says of their wedding, smiling. "Lots of people and dancing, and we snapped pictures to remember the day."

"When I first found out I was positive I thought it was the end of the world," says Usman. "I was depressed and became isolated from my friends. Now I have a partner who understands everything. We share our problems, remind each other to take medicine and are free with each other."

Bala Garba, a 40-year-old soldier, married Rabi Ibrahim, a 24-year-old teacher, with assistance from the plan after they met at their clinic.

"Making this marriage will make our lives easier and help us to keep the secret [of our HIV-positive status]," Garba says.

"It is normal to be married in our society. This keeps people from thinking there is anything abnormal about us."

The pair have just had their first baby, a boy named Musa.

With assistance from the program, the couple received treatment and advice to help prevent the virus from being passed to the child, although he is still too young to be tested. According to health workers, the boy has every chance of being healthy.

Ziko and Hannah, following strict advice and recommendations from the organization, have also conceived.

"I'm so excited to be a mother," says Hannah, who is three months pregnant. "I have been eating a special diet and having medical checkups. I never imagined I could live such a normal life."

Not everyone is so encouraged, however. Some health experts have criticized the plan, saying that if HIV-positive couples are encouraged to have babies, more children will end up orphaned.

According to the United Nations, Nigeria had 1.2 million AIDS orphans in 2007. Though some may be adopted by relatives or find care with charitable or church organizations, many will end up on the streets begging and taking care of their siblings.

Bauchi's health officials remain convinced of the plan's benefits, however. They point out that in Nigeria, life expectancy is just 48 years in any case.

"Here you can't assume that someone with HIV will die sooner than someone else," says the program's Abubakar. "Especially if they are taking care of themselves, receiving good advice and proper medication."

Ziko certainly has no intention of leaving his unborn child to fend for itself.

"It's the start of a fresh, new and happy life," he says, beaming. "I plan to live another 50 years."

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