Routine viral load tests must be accessible for all

In Zambia, on 30 October, hundreds of people marched to launch a new campaign calling on African governments to make viral load tests routinely available to all citizens living with HIV.

In Zambia, on 30 October, hundreds of people marched as part of a new campaign calling on African governments to make viral load tests routinely available to all citizens living with HIV.

The campaign Be Healthy – Know your viral load was launched in Lusaka, and people living with HIV, treatment advocates and representatives from the participating countries* took part in a march which was flagged off by George Nyendwa, Mayor of Lusaka.

The campaign is being coordinated by the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC), the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) and 11 national partners from Botswana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Countries must adopt WHO guidelines

The World Health Organization (WHO) strongly recommends routine viral load testing as an essential part of effective HIV treatment. But only three countries (Egypt, Botswana and Kenya) involved in the campaign have adopted the WHO guidelines.

The campaigners delivered a petition to the Zambian government, represented by Professor Nkandu Luo, gender and development minister, and regional development agencies. This called on governments to adopt the WHO guidelines and invest in implementing them, both at a strategic and local level.

Professor Luo said that the days are gone when tackling HIV was a lone fight but the scenario has changed because of the many new faces joining hands in this fight. She said: “Turning a blind eye to it is postponing the problem and, as such, people living with HIV will not be left behind. The more people living with HIV know the importance of routine viral load testing, the more it can be demanded.”

Challenges in Zambian health sector

Felix Mwanza, treatment advocacy and literacy campaign executive director, bemoaned the many challenges facing the health sector in Zambia. He said there was a huge turnover for specimen waiting, structural obstacles and limited resources to purchase specialist machinery for viral load testing.

In Zambia, there are 720,000 people living with HIV currently on treatment leaving a gap of 600,000. “Zambia is facing competing priorities in the area of viral load accessibility,” said Mwanza. The cost of viral load testing in Zambia is about US$50 and is unaffordable to the majority of people living with HIV.

Dr Bactrin Kilingo, of ITPC Kenya, said: “We need to engage the manufacturers of diagnostic equipment and reagents to bring down their prices to affordable levels.”

The President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) stated that implementing the guidelines and viral load monitoring was key in ensuring that Zambia achieves the universal access to quality treatment. PEPFAR fully supports UNAIDS’ 90 90 90 targets and has invested in viral load machines in Lusaka and Ndola.

*Participating countries include: Botswana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe

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