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Discordant Couples find their Niche
By Frankie Edozien

KAMPALA, Uganda -

With so many people infected by the HIV virus here, it was inevitable that a sizable number of couples would have negative partners. Keeping those partners virus free has led one organization to try a novel approach -- having a social club for such couples. The Discordant Couples club is run by The AIDS Service Organization (TASO), Uganda’s longtime HIV support network. They meet quarterly and share experiences and have counseling sprinkled into their sessions. “It is a big challenge,” said TASO spokeswoman Anne Kaddumukasa.

“Many of them do share that their spouses get tired of using condoms and sometimes if it is the woman, because culturally the woman has less power over sexual related issues, sometimes we may not have enough power to convince the spouse to put on a condom,” she added. Since TASO began the club, it has grown to over 100 couples. About half of the patients in TASO’s Kampala center qualify as discordant couples. Indeed, many women have found out they are infected and their husbands continued as before, until the women actually fell sick, as was the case of Zam Nakawooya, a schoolteacher.

The married mother found out she was HIV positive in 1993, but it was not until her second child was born and she fell sick years later that her husband got tested. “We took our blood and found out I was positive and he was negative. So he wondered ‘how did it come? I’ve stayed with my wife almost 10 years; how can it be like that?’ That doctor said it usually happens and we call those people, discordant couples.”

At Kampala’s leading HIV clinic, the Infectious Disease Institute, head of clinical services explained that HIV has touched the entire nation. “In Uganda any family, has lost someone or a friend to HIV, in that sense it is easy to deal with stigma. Everyone is affected,” said Andrew Kambuga. “The national prevalence stands at 6.4 percent that represents a triumph. So before this, HIV prevalence was between 12 and 15 percent in the late 90s.” The doctor estimated that now there could be 150,000 new infections annually so novel approaches are welcome and needed. The nation’s population is 27.6 million.

“We realized that we really needed to support these people, because many of them have children, many of them have been living together for over 10, 15 years, and encouraging them to separate will not help because they need to bring up these children,” Kaddumukasa added.

Speakers are brought in often and blame is severely discouraged. Part of the club’s mission is to have members have a life free from blame, free from judgment and a sexual life that includes proper condom use all the time. Very few members who are negative have been infected in the five years of the club. “We keep checking them but it’s very insignificant. So that means they are using condoms. We also assure them that ‘you may not remain negative all your life if you continue to expose yourself to the infection. You can sero-convert and become positive,” she added.

This report is supported by the Project for International Health Journalism Fellowship Program as part of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s Media Fellowships Program.

Images Courtesy of www.tasouganda.org and http://www.idi.ac.ug

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