By Andreas Thomas
Windhoek – The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) continues to support relentless effort by the Namibian Government and its local partners to curb the further spread of HIV/AIDS epidemic.
It is estimated that 250 000 people in the southern African nation are HIV positive.USAID this week announced N$32 million partnership with a community-based network to expand community-based HIV treatment among its affiliate organisation.
TONATA Network comprises over 600 community support groups representing 17,300 Namibians living with HIV.
The five-year partnership with funding provided by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) will support Community-Based ART Refill Groups in high-burden areas of north-central Namibia to decrease the workload of health workers and overcrowding in health facilities by reducing the number of visits by Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) patients.
With the financial assistance from USAID, HIV patients will no more travel long distances to collect their medications at public health centers.
“Instead of visiting clinics individually to collect their medication, Community-Based ART Refill Groups send one representative to collect pre-packed antiretroviral medicines (ARVs) from the nearest health facility for all group members,” said acting USAID Country Representative Edith Humphreys.
“This not only saves time, but also reduces transport costs and other logistical challenges, especially for minors and the elderly.
“Most importantly, community members experience a sense of togetherness and help each other to remember to take their medication regularly and on time.
“This is crucial because in order to suppress the virus, prevent it from being spread to others, and lead healthy lives, PLHIV need to take ART medicine daily”.
USAID chose to partner TONATA due to its years of experience in working hand in hand with local communities, and the partnership will brings HIV treatment closer to the people even in the most remote areas.
She said USAID has worked with the community-based network on small-scale projects since 2009 and Humphreys believes that local solutions from community support groups will sustain HIV epidemic control into the future.
“Namibia’s National HIV/AIDS program, with over a decade of experience, has significantly scaled up HIV treatment with good, clinical outcomes. PEPFAR assistance supports continuous training, mentoring, and supervision of support groups to make it more convenient for stable patients to receive their medicines at their doorstep. This service is expected to grow from what is currently only 1,600 to over 37,500 ART patients across multiple regions,” said the USAID official.
PEPFAR is the largest commitment ever by a single nation toward an international health initiative – a comprehensive approach to combating HIV/AIDS and TB around the world.
PEPFAR, in Namibia is led by the U.S. Ambassador and programmed by an inter-agency management team that includes the USAID, Peace Corps, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But despite progress made, Namibia is yet to attain the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) 90-90-90 Global Fast Track targets aimed at ensuring that HIV is suppressed by 2020.
The 90-90-90 is an ambitious global treatment target by the UNAIDS to ensure that 90 per cent of all people living with HIV know their status, that 90 per cent of them receive sustained ARTs and that 90 per cent of that population have a suppressed viral load.
Data from the Ministry of Health and Social Services indicate that only about 78% or 243 000 of the targeted 90 per cent of undiagnosed people are aware of their HIV status so far.
“There is a gap between the targeted number and what the survey found so far and this is why the ministry decided to revise the guidelines, which will now target a greater population of men and young women,” Anne-Marie Nitschke, the director of Special Programmes in the health ministry.
The ministry on Wednesday launched the revised National Guidelines on HIV Testing Services (HTS).Nitschke emphasized that the revision of the HTS Guidelines was necessitated by the need to move away from emergency response programming to a more sustainable and evidence-based one.
“Its main goal is also to ensure early identification of as many people as possible with HIV and effectively linking them to prevention, care and treatment services,” said the health official.
Health deputy minister Juliet Kavetuna highlighted that the Namibian Government has committed to not only increasing testing coverage for the population, but also prioritised on strategies and testing initiatives that will identify people living with undiagnosed HIV.
“We all know that the HTS uptake coverage has significantly increased over the years and so have different types of testing models, which have evolved from traditional stand-alone voluntary counseling and testing to a mixture of models, including index partner testing,” Kavetuna said, while launching the revised the HTS Guidelines.
The health ministry has also expressed concern regarding high prevalence HIV across the country. The Zambezi region in extreme north-east tops the least of Namibians testing HIV-positive with 23.5% of prevalence rate.
Omusati region in north-central is second with 17.4% followed by Kavango East and West region in north-east at 17%.