Unsung Hero: Gloria Akullo

To increase access and utilization of HIV prevention, care and treatment services and accelerate the achievement of the UNAIDS 90’90’90 goal among the adolescent population in Uganda, in 2015, USAID/SUSTAIN project worked with the Ministry of Health to establish functional Adolescent Friendly Health service (AFHS) model centers at supported Regional Referral hospitals.

At the forefront of enhancing AFHS in Lira district is Gloria Akullo, a 24 year old female volunteer who was diagnosed with HIV at three years of age following persistent illness and the death of her parents. Not understanding why she was subjected to daily pills, Gloria later learned from her caretaker (aunt), that she was HIV positive at age 10. This was devastating news for her but hardly in comparison to the death of her caretaker six years later at which point she gave up on living and quit her ARVs for a year.

At the brink of death from HIV disease progression, Gloria’s life was saved by the dedicated ART clinic team at Lira Regional Referral Hospital who supported her to fight off stigma and discrimination from her relatives and later switched her to a new drug combination. Because of the close bond existing between her and the ART clinic team, at 17 years, Gloria chose to be “a hero to the hero less” taking on an adolescent peer volunteer role to support other children and adolescents living with HIV to not only adhere to their medication but to turn their HIV status into an opportunity to thrive and not give up.

“I am proud of my work as an adolescent peer. My hope is to see that children and adolescents who are born with HIV live long and healthy lives while those who are HIV negative remain negative. It’s very important that every adolescent knows their HIV status and has the information they need to stop the spread of HIV beginning with them”- Gloria.

In 2016, Gloria’s efforts were realized by the hospital team who assigned her a peer adolescent leadership role in the hospital’s adolescent centre where she currently coordinates activities of other adolescent peer volunteers and ensures that each adolescent gets the right health information, is linked to the right clinician and receives priority and quality care.

Part of her specific roles at the adolescent center include creating awareness on the services offered at various entry points, identifying and physically escorting adolescents from all units to the centre. Gloria also participates in conducting health education talks on topics like teenage pregnancies, Sexually Transmitted Infections including HIV, family planning and keeps adolescents engaged with indoor games like Snakes and Ladders and Chess.

By sharing her own experiences, Gloria gives hope and motivates many newly identified HIV positive adolescents to take up services at the ART clinic. Through building relationships and trust with adolescents, she is able to actively follow up adolescent clients who are lost from HIV care and personally ensure their return; follows up, reminds and explains to those who are due for a viral load, its importance and supports them to access viral load testing services.

Since March 2016, there was a significant increase in the total number of adolescents newly attending the adolescent centre at Lira RRH from 430 clients to 1,486 in September 2016. Also, the proportion of adolescents who test HIV positive that are linked to HIV care increased from 50% to 100% in the same period.