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Our battle plan against HIV/AIDS –Pauline Tallen, Chair, NACA Board

Chairman of the Board of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), Dame Pauline Tallen, has unveiled her agenda for the agency at the forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention and impact mitigation activities in the country.

In this interview with Effects, Tallen, a former Deputy Governor of Plateau State and ex-Minister of State, Science and Technology said she is bringing a new, serious spirit of advocacy to bare in NACA. Amongst other issues, Tallen said she was worried about the status of Nigeria on the world map and declared that “It is quite disturbing and not much is being done as regards addressing the situation.”

With your busy schedule, how do you relax?

I relax with my grandchildren and I love music. I just love company, especially with my children and grandchildren.

With all that you have experienced in office, what lesson have you learnt about life?

Life is like a mirror. Whatever you give out, you take it back. That is why I celebrate everyday as my last day. I believe in just feeling good. I feel happy and fulfilled when I put smile on peoples’ faces. And I feel bad when somebody comes with a problem and I am not able to solve it or help on the spot. I don’t believe in ‘go and come back tomorrow.’ I take one day at a time.

Where is your preferred holiday destination?

I love going on retreat.

Is it at the Ewu Monastery or where?

Yes, a quiet place where I would just commune with my God and maybe, going on a pilgrimage. I relax more when I am in a quiet place during a pilgrimage where I commune with my God; or in religious company. Again, I like visiting the Obudu Cattle Ranch, a natural scenic environment.

What is your definition of a stylish woman?

To me, a stylish woman is being natural and being yourself. Doing things the natural way and doing things in the way God has created you.

As the chairman of the NACA board, what are you bringing to the table?

What we are bringing to the table is a new spirit of advocacy; serious advocacy, serious awareness and to ensure that the spread of HIV; yes we know that AIDS is deadly, but people can live with it and survive and love their normal lives if people accept their situation and the reality of it.

I am most worried about the status of Nigeria on the world map with regards to the prevalence of AIDS. It is quite disturbing and not much is being done as regards addressing the situation. Yes, something is being done, but out of almost three million that are affected, we are treating only one million. What happens to the rest? And even the one million that we are treating is in reliance with foreign donors. It is not acceptable.

I know that the President has inherited so many problems in every field, but I know that he respects the sanctity of life. He knows very well that as a leader, one of the greatest responsibilities that you can do for your citizens is to protect lives and property and ensure the health of the citizens because the health of the citizens translates into a very productive citizenry.

I am very much pretty sure that we are going to enjoy the political will of the President to turn things around. This week is very critical for us, apart from the Council on AIDS, we received the Executive Director of USAIDS and the President has accepted to receive him. He did not delegate that to the Minister of Health and that alone shows that he is committed to turn things around for NACA and address burning issues that are on ground. Government will throw its weight on this. I am speaking with confidence because I know that the political will is there. Once we have the political will, we are sure that we will turn things around.

South Africa has the highest prevalence rate of AIDS in the world, but South Africa is addressing it very well. I want Nigerians to know that the political will is there and things will be better. There is much that the civil servants can do, but with the board, we have a higher authority and we shall do the right thing.

South Africa started it and now, they are treating all those with HIV/AIDS for free. I believe that we can do it. We are already reaching out to our brothers in the upper and lower houses of the National Assembly and all the chairmen of committees on Health. They are people that we have been working with for the past 20 years since the ban on politics was lifted. Some of them are my brothers and friends and they have given me their word that they will do anything possible to give us the necessary support. So, the political will is there. We will not always by the grace of God rely on foreign donors. Assuming if they pull back today, what do we do?

So your appointment will revolutionalize the system?

By the grace of God!

Apart from advocacy, which other areas do you plan to venture into?

We are planning to go into mother and child transmission issues. This is a very important and strategic area that we must address, not only treating the mother, but the unborn child. And when given birth to, some are lucky because I have seen cases where some infected mothers give birth to free children. God works in mysterious ways.

I was Commissioner for Health in my state of Plateau between 1994 and 1995. I worked closely with these people. I am not new to these areas and their exceptional cases. But for those that are born and unfortunately get infected, the child got it through not fault of his and needs to be treated and must be on medication for life.  That is an area that we must strongly address and ensure that the drugs are there at all times to reach out to those people.

How about engagement with international donors?

These are people that have been supporting and assisting us. We must hold them in high esteem and we must reach out to them and to their higher authorities to sustain that relationship and even have more. We hope to reach out more too to other international donors. I am prepared to reach out to them.

What do you intend to do with regards to transparency in the disbursement of donor funds?

I will definitely put my feet down and ensure that we closely monitor that. It is part of what I just discussed with my colleagues (referring to a meeting with NACA board members prior to the interview). Like the theme of this year’s council meeting which is on finance and ensuring that we have value for money that we receive, I want to assure all our donor agencies that under my watch, I will ensure transparency and that all funds released for this project will be closely followed and properly executed to make the lives of our people better.

Majority of these three million Nigerians infected with HIV are women who are socially disadvantaged. As a foremost female politician, what are you going to do to reach out to them?

I don’t really want to believe that the majority of people with HIV are women. It is maybe because the women have subjected themselves to test to know their status. The men have more multiple sex partners and most of them don’t want to subject themselves to screening to know their health status. The statistics before us, as a mother and female politician, I am most pained that more women have found themselves in this.  That is why I say we will intensify advocacy and we must not be addressed to talk and enlighten people about this.

At the early stage, there was much political will. So, we will intensify advocacy and political will is the main thing. People should know that AIDS is real and is living with us. Nowadays, people don’t talk much about AIDS again, but things like cancer. I know cancer is more deadly, but with AIDS, if you know your status, you can live your normal life. But that doesn’t mean that we should not talk about it because people are dying in our villages and most youths are wasting away. You don’t even know the statistics of people dying in the villages, particularly among the low income class. This is because they don’t have access to good nutrition and access to medications.

The amount of money owed donor partners in terms of counterpart funding is staggering. How do you ensure that this money is not always in arrears?

Mr President has the political will. He has the power to give out funds where it is most needed. If he sees the critical need for this, he will put everything on the table to achieve this.

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