AIDS hotline “Wegen”? recieves 70,000 calls each month

October 12th, 2006 Print Print Email Email

ADDIS ABABA, 12 Oct 2006 (IRIN/PLUSNEWS) – It means family in Amharic, Ethiopia’s main language, but the ‘Wegen’ AIDS helpline’s main strength is the anonymity it provides people seeking answers in a society uncomfortable with openly talking about the disease. Initially launched as a pilot in September 2004, the free helpline has rapidly expanded, answering over 70,000 calls each month.

The team of counsellors includes trained clinicians, sociologists and psychologists, ensuring that a wide range of support can be given, from those worried about taking an HIV test, to accurate information on what to do if you have missed a dose of your antiretroviral drugs.

“We were expecting less than 1,000 calls per day but we are receiving 6,000. We never expected that it would be this popular,” said Gashaw Mengistu, co-ordinator of the AIDS Resource Centre, which runs the hotline. “After we launched, we received 56,000 calls in a month and we decided we had to expand. We increased from eight to 24 lines; the staff went from 17 to 39 and hours expanded from 8am to 8pm to 8am until midnight.”

To begin with, the hotline was in the Amharic and Tigrinya languages only, but now its counsellors speak six different languages and can be accessed countrywide. It costs around US $250,000-a-year and is mainly funded by the United States Centres for Disease Control, and the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund.

After being randomly assigned, callers are passed on to the telephonist most suitable to help them. Sociologist Genene Tariku tends to focus on counselling, which makes up around eight percent of the hotline’s calls.

“What has surprised me is just how free and open people are prepared to be when they talk on the phone – you wouldn’t usually ever get people speaking like this in Ethiopia,” said Genene.

“Once I had a 17-year-old boy phoning up to talk about how he was being blackmailed into a homosexual relationship after a drunken encounter with another man,” she added. “I just can’t imagine someone talking about that if they were in front of you. You have people tell you everything because they know that if they feel uncomfortable they can just hang up.”

The helpline keeps a database of caller details such as gender, age, location and their comments. The typical caller, staff members say, is a young untested man from the capital, Addis Ababa. Although calls are free, Addis residents are more likely to have private access to a telephone than people in other areas.

Genene said access to mobile phones had also made a big difference: “Ethiopian homes are very busy places. People are in the kitchen, in the sitting room ““ and how can you call from the shop? Free mobile access is very important.”

Wegen is also looking to expand its operating hours so callers can phone whenever they have the house to themselves or when other members of the household may be asleep.

At present, only 28 percent of callers are female, despite the fact that women make up 56 percent of the 1.3 million Ethiopians living with the virus. This is an area that director Gashaw says needs to be addressed “across the board,” pointing out that women are less likely to access HIV services, including testing.

Wegen is also proving useful information to Ethiopia’s HIV/AIDS policy makers.

“If we hear about drugs being distributed past their expiry date we can take that up, or a lot of people travel to Addis for referral services but when they are diagnosed with HIV they were told they have to go back home,” Gashaw said. “When we here about it we get them treatment here in Addis.”

“It’s a two-way thing,” he added. “It’s not only about their problems – it also gives us ideas about how to improve the system.”

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