LAGOS, NIGERIA (NOVEMBER 30, 2013) (REUTERS) - Nigeria's soccer stars and celebrities took to the pitch on Saturday (November 30) in a battle of talent to raise HIV/AIDS awareness, a day before the 25th anniversary of World AIDS Days.
Hundreds gathered at a mini-stadium in Lagos to watch the soccer match that ensued, chanting and cheering for the favourites, while others visited a test centre set up near the pitch calling for people to check their status.
According to the National Action Committee on AIDS (NACA), Nigeria has about 3.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, with 300,000 new infections occurring yearly among people between the ages of 15 and 24.
"People don't really care much about this thing, when you talk to them about it, some will tell you 'it's not my portion', some will tell you 'no I don't have it', some don't even know what they are to do and they will be infected and what they shouldn't do, what they shouldn't do in order not to get infected and what they should do in order (if they are) infected. That has become a serious problem," he said, adding that focus is shifting because the virus is no longer perceived as a global health emergency.
Activists say that while prevalence has come down, many infected people in Nigeria, still do not feel safe to reveal their status.
Ibrahim Umaru discovered he had HIV 15 years ago. Umaru decided to open up about his status, taking a bold step that many fear.
"A lot of my peers are not that fortunate to have - even with all the wonderful qualifications and credentials - they are denied their means of livelihood because of their status and human beings we are social animals, nobody wants to be isolated," said Umaru, who is involved in counselling HIV/AIDS patients and advocating against discrimination in the country.
"One thing stigma does, when you are discriminating about it, it gets to isolation because, I always tell people, stigma is the beginning point, discrimination is the end point and that end point (is when) isolation comes in and that brings other things like stress, emotional and every other thing (related to) stress and it's not helping. That is the worst thing and that is why a lot of my peers are not able to disclose (their situation) because of fear of stigma and discrimination. And in any community where there is anybody living with HIV who is not encouraged, empowered to be open with his or her status, that person is dangerous to the community, that's the worst thing our community, our policy makers are doing to ourselves."
Friends Africa, a pan-African organisation, in partnership with the Lagos state government was able to test over 3,000 people over a week, as part of efforts to raise awareness and eradicating the disease.
The issue of stigma has been a challenge in achieving the 'Getting to Zero' theme and preventing non-governmental organisations' in achieving the goal of testing over 1 million people before 2014.
Test centres, like the one used during the novelty soccer match on Saturday, have been set up in various areas across the state calling for people to check their status.
"The cause is to attain zero stigmatisation for people living with HIV and I think for that reason alone, it has been very fulfilling, you can see the excitement here. There are at least half the people here are living with HIV. Now, the problem is that we have been given the false information about what HIV truly is. So as a nation, in fact the world itself believes that HIV is a death sentence, that was a lie sold to us by the fear that was created by the virus. Today, we know that HIV is no longer a death sentence," said Amata.
After almost two hours of playing soccer, the former Super Eagles players beat their celebrity adversaries with a 6-0 win.
Nigerian musician, Sound Sultan, said despite the loss he was felt privileged to take part in the games as part of the special campaign to fight stigma and discrimination.
"I feel privileged to be part of it because the message is clear, everything is verbal, everywhere you go, you see it, it is visible."
There are 25 million people infected with the virus in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to UNAIDS, there is a 3 to 5 billion U.S. dollar shortfall in the annual 22 to 24 billion U.S. dollars needed to turn the tide against the disease. Funding from international donors for AIDS has flatlined, compounded by the fact that the majority of African governments are also not meeting their commitments to spend 15 percent of their budgets on health.