Analysis: CHARLES CHISALA
ZAMBIA has just opened a new frontline in the fight against HIV and AIDS by making HIV counselling, testing and treatment mandatory in all public healthcare institutions.
This is in line with the government’s target of bringing new infections to zero by the year 2030.
Although there is some disquiet in some sections of the Zambian society, many players, especially those who have borne the brunt of AIDS, a cocktail of opportunistic infections which HIV causes, have welcomed the measure as a bold decision.
August 15 will now be HIV Counselling and Treatment Day.
President Lungu launched the campaign in Lusaka on Tuesday and announced that HIV will be among other tests medical personnel will be required to conduct on a patient to determine the best course of treatment.
It is a shift from the largely ineffective voluntary counselling and testing strategy.
The President explained that if one is found to be infected with the virus, they will be counselled and put on treatment immediately to prolong life.
It is sad that since the first HIV infection case was detected in Zambia in 1984, the disease has claimed about one million citizens, hitting the most productive age group of 15-45.
Out of the 1.2 million Zambians believed to be living with HIV, only 800 are on antiretroviral therapy (ART), which is not good enough.
Every person living with the virus should be on treatment. There is nothing to fear.
It will be in the interest of the nation to support the policy because HIV and AIDS is globally identified as a threat to development.
There is empirical evidence that if someone who is HIV-positive is put on treatment while their CD4 count (immune system) is still high, such a person can lead a normal, long and productive life.
This is because early treatment puts the virus under so much pressure that it is forced to flee from the blood stream and other body fluids into the tissue, where it will remain dormant.
Chances of such an HIV-positive person getting re-infected or infecting another are drastically reduced.
It is in this light that the mandatory counselling and treatment should be supported by all.
But medical personnel in government clinics and hospitals should also improve on confidentiality.
Often, people are counselled for HIV testing or given ARVs in full view of other people with different ailments.
This can be a serious barrier to testing and treatment.
Since the early 1990s, Zambia has been mounting a vigorous and relatively successful multi-sectoral response to HIV and AIDS, which has helped to reduce national HIV prevalence.
In March this year, Minister of Health Chitalu Chilufya announced that about 1.2 million people were living with HIV in Zambia as at end of 2016.
Dr Chilufya told Parliament in a ministerial statement that more than 3.3 million people had accessed HIV counselling and testing services against the annual target of 4,116,679 by the end of 2016.
And according to a report titled ‘HIV and AIDS in Zambia’ by Avert, a campaign that provides global information on HIV and AIDS, HIV prevalence in Zambia has declined, falling by 19 percent between 2003 and 2015.
The report says in 2015, around 55,000 adults and 5,000 children became newly infected with HIV, but also notes that new infections are decreasing, especially in children.
It is, however, still relatively high, with official figures estimating it at 12.9 percent in 2015 and a PEPFAR study estimating it at 11.9 percent in 2016.
The statistics do not look bad, but there is still a lot of work to be done so that the HIV infection rate is reduced to below five percent.
There is need for the media also to provide accurate information and help pacify unfounded fears that could hamper the implementation of the measure.
The author is Zambia Daily Mail production editor.