Government urges Zimbabweans to know their status

Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care has launched a new HIV testing and counselling campaign, amid concerns that the current uptake of these services is too low.

Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care is stepping up its efforts to promote voluntary counselling and testing for HIV, amid concerns that the current uptake of these services is too low. The government launched a new HIV testing and counselling campaign and new national guidelines on 20 November.

Dr Owen Mugurungi, AIDS and TB programme director, said: “Our people have a right to access health services and, within this right, also to know their status. To attain universal access in HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment and care services, we need to considerably expand services for testing and counselling to all people in urban and rural settings of Zimbabwe.

“The Ministry of Health and Child Care reviewed and revised the HIV testing and counselling guidelines in order to ensure quality services are accessible to all age groups and target groups. Currently we are in a drive to train health workers so that they have skills in counselling and testing for adults, couples, children and key populations.”

Targeting men and parents

Miriam Chikukwa, Minister of State for Provincial Affairs for Harare Metropolitan Province who was guest of honour at the launch, said the campaign is being conducted in Harare and the Mashonaland West and Midlands provinces.

“This year’s campaign is taking a new twist altogether, as we are deliberately targeting men and also we have realised that a significant gap still exists regarding the testing rate for children. As parents and guardians, we need a concerted effort to ensure that we take our children or the children within our care for HIV testing,” Chikukwa said.

The campaign for Harare will include all health institutions, while mobile outreach teams will serve difficult to reach communities.

“We have a target of 120,000 people to be tested in ten days. Mashonaland West conducted the campaign three weeks ago and they surpassed their target. At the same time voluntary medical male circumcision will be carried out in our health institutions for those who want to get circumcised,” Chikukwa added.

Helping people change behaviour

Dr Tsitsi Apollo, deputy director of sexually transmitted infections, said: “Voluntary counselling and testing is a very important entry point to HIV care and treatment and we are urging people to take up voluntary services. This helps them change their behaviour when they know their status.”

Dr Apollo said more women are using HIV testing and counselling services than men. According to the Zimbabwe Demographic Health Survey of 2010-11, only 36 per cent of men have ever been tested and know their status compared to 57 per cent of women. Dr Apollo said this is due to women getting tested when they access antenatal care services.

She added that counselling and testing is also important in the elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and in directing people to male circumcision services. She added that when people in the communities know their status, they will behave responsibly.

“Our target for 2015 is that 85 per cent of the population should have access to treatment and know their status,” she said, adding the government encouraged people to get tested at least once a year.

Extent of HIV testing

According to Michael Bartos, Zimbabwe UNAIDS director, a recent survey conducted by the Zimbabwe Statistical Agency showed that 50 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men (aged 15-49) had been tested for HIV in the past 12 months and know their results. He said the total adult population 15-49 years is approximately 6.9 million.

“If, as the survey suggests, an average of 45 per cent of this population tested in the past 12 months, then we would expect 3.1 million tests to have been conducted. However, programme data suggest that only around two million tests for HIV were conducted in 2013,” Bartos said.

He said it may be that a proportion of those who report to a survey that they have been tested for HIV are in fact mistaken. “Perhaps there was another type of medical test they undertook,” he said.

“It is fair to say that Zimbabwe has made great progress in HIV testing coverage, but also needs to increase family-based testing approaches to increase the rate at which children and adolescents know their HIV status.”

Barriers to testing

Martha Tholanah, a volunteer coordinator for International Community of Women Living with HIV – Zimbabwe (ICW-Zimbabwe), said there were a number of factors which could deter people from getting tested.

These include a shortage of qualified healthcare workers, problems people in rural communities face in getting to a clinic and a lack of diagnostic machines. Other factors include stigma, negative attitudes of some heath care workers and violence and abuse (or fear of it) in the home.

Tholanah, who is open about her HIV positive status, said: “People also fear the result may somehow get known by others and that they may be ostracized at home, church, work or school. Some will not take up testing services due to religious reasons.”

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