Fighting AIDS in Uganda

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Dr. Julian Atim is one of the few doctors serving the people of war-torn northern Uganda. As part of our World AIDS Day coverage, we profile the 27-year-old.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

(Soundbite of people singing)

CHIDEYA: That's a family celebration at the Ugandan home of Dr. Julian Atim. Julian lost her mother and father to HIV and AIDS.

(Soundbite of people singing)

Unidentified People: In memory of our late parents who died of HIV/AIDS, may their soul rest in eternal peace. Amen.

CHIDEYA: Julian is 27. She's one of only two doctors in the entire Gulu region of Northern Uganda. For 20 years, Uganda has been ravaged by civil war. Healthcare resources are scarce, and HIV/AIDS and other diseases are rampant. Julian was in medical school when she began to connect healthcare and human rights. She became an activist and joined the organization Physicians for Human Rights.

And while Northern Uganda remains a no-go zone for most health professionals, Dr. Atim chooses to live and work there. Here's an audio postcard from Julian Atim working on the frontline of HIV and AIDS.

Dr. JULIAN ATIM (Physicians for Human Rights): In a surrounding of a population of about 300,000, we have only about two doctors, and many times on and off they leave, on and off they leave. And this has a lot of impact on the kind of health system that is delivered to the people there.

What they leave behind is like a car without an engine. You can't drive a car without an engine. They may be the drugs. We may have the building. We may have whatever it is. But if we don't have healthcare workers, we'll not be able to provide the healthcare that has to be provided to the people.

I wake up in the morning by around 6:30 and do my daily morning prayer, have a shower, go have my breakfast and walk to the hospital. The hospital is about 400 meters away from where I live and it's called Anaka Hospital. This is a hospital that was kind of destroyed during the 20-year-old war and it's being renovated slowly. It has about 100 beds.

However, because of the overcrowding in such areas, sometimes patients have to share beds. On average, I see from between 50 to about 150 persons per day. This also has an impact on the patients because they have to be waiting.

It's a bit difficult because of no lighting. We rely on a generator that has about only three hours. They put it on from around 7:00 to 10:00 because of fuel not being available and being expensive. And this has a lot of implications, because like sometimes if you're called upon later than the time when it's on, you have to use like a paraffin lamp to assist a patient. And some procedures just can't be done without good lighting.

When like her, a family has lost a patient due to like HIV/AIDS, it's really a very difficult situation, because many times it's normally the head of the family that normally is lost to HIV. They like kind of moan and, you know, it is really a very difficult setting scene to see even young children, like as early as five, trying to think ahead what that would have an impact on them. I mean it's not just loss to that family. I believe it's also a loss to me and lost to the world, because this is someone who probably could be tomorrow's leader in the family, wherever they are, or tomorrow's leader in the country.

When this happens, I'll compose myself. I'll stay strong because they're looking at me as a role model. And many times I have had to share my personal story with like such families, on how I lost both of my parents to HIV/AIDS. But it was not the end of the world. I looked forward ahead on how I can move on and still make life the same as if they were still alive. Talking helps them overcome, but it's done in steps. Initially, because of the overwhelming denial they're having, it's quite difficult for them to like accept.

I feel it's my obligation to offer a service where it's most needed. If I left Africa, I believe I will have cheated the world overall. I would have also cheated myself. I'll be a very bad example to them. I want to see a world of equitable healthcare. It's an inner feeling, a humanitarian feeling. I know I can't do all there is to do in the world, to bring equity in healthcare. But the little I have through offering my services, I feel I should do it as a contribution for ensuring that life, in terms of health, is better in the world of our own.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: You can learn more about Uganda's struggles with healthcare and human rights. Just go to phrusa.org.

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