55 000 Zambians access ARV drugs

The Department for International Development (DFID) said it is happy at the increased number of people undertaking voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) so as to know their HIV/AIDS status.

The DFID is particularly pleased that the introduction of free ARVs has increased the number of people on treatment to 55 000 out of the targeted 100,000 Zambia sought to put on treatment by last year as envisioned by the World Health Organisation.

DFID head of delegation in Zambia Beverly Warmington said the number, representing 20 percent of all those needing treatment in the country, was a remarkable improvement in the turn-out of HIV/AIDS patients seeking treatment.

“Currently, about 55 000 Zambians are on ARVs, significantly up from the figure one year ago.”

Previously many people were not willing to go for counselling and testing, because they felt it was pointless for them to do it without receiving treatment and that stigmatisation had also played a key role. There has been a great improvement in behavioural change among the people and that the prevalence has stabilised.

George Mutale, one of the Zambians living with the virus, said he was happy that he had undertaken VCT and had been using the ARVs for the past three years to assist him prolong his life. Mutale, 35, a father of three children, said since he started taking ARVs, his life had improved tremendously and was experiencing fewer problems relating to his health. “My life has greatly improved since I started taking ARVs and now I am feeling fit and able to carry out various duties,” he said.

He is, however, concerned that stigmatisation of those living with the virus was rife in communities, forcing several people to stay away from health centres where VCT was being offered freely. “Our greatest enemy is stigma among people in our communities. People who are living with the virus are usually isolated because they are perceived as being different by their own relatives and friends and this contributes to people dying earlier than expected.”

Priscilla Chirwa, 21, also living with the virus, said she has been on ARVs for the past two years and her health has improved tremendously ‘ unlike in the past when she shunned VCT.

However, investigations by the Southern Times revealed that most health institutions, particularly in rural areas, lacked CD4 count machines despite the availability of ARVs.

Sources in the health sector explained that there was overwhelming desire by people in rural areas to undergo VCT but several rural areas within their proximity lacked the equipment.

“Most of the people who are anxious to know their HIV/AIDS status are forced to travel over 30 kilometres to the nearest health centre to have their CD4 count checked before they access the ARVs, but not many can manage to do that,” said a doctor at one of the rural health centres in northern Zambia who preferred anonymity.

Chikankata Mission Hospital in southern Zambia said it lacked the CD4 count machine to determine HIV/AIDS status and relied on Lusaka’s University Teaching Hospital for results.

“We have a lot of people who want to know their HIV/AIDS status but we are lacking a CD4 count machine and we are forced to take the specimen to Lusaka to determine people’s status,” said Henry Mweemba, one of the HIV/AIDS counsellors.

“We have ARVs, but the people eligible to access them are very few because we need to know the CD4 count before we can give out the drugs to people.”

Sources in the Ministry of Health confirmed the lack of CD4 count machines at most health centres, making the initiative to place more than 100,000 people on ARVs a futile exercise.

“We have an overwhelming desire by people to be tested for the HIV/AIDS virus, but we don’t have CD4 count machines, especially at major rural health centres because of lack of resources,” said a source in the ministry.

“We have appealed to the donors to assist us with more CD4 machines in our health sector reform strategy plan (2006-2010) and our co-operating partners have shown a willingness to assist.”

Zambia is a signatory to the United Nations’ agreement for developing countries to provide free and quality health services to all by the year 2015 under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

HIV/AIDS prevalence in the country is 16 percent down from one in every five adults some years ago.

July 2006
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