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Unprecedented moment in Zambia’s HIV fight

FILE PHOTO: PUBLIC Service Pension workers were among participants during World AIDS Day last year in Lusaka. PICTURE: COLLINS PHIRI

BETHANY BAXTER, Lusaka
ZAMBIA is at an unprecedented moment in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

For the first time in modern history, we have the opportunity to change the course of an epidemic without a vaccine or a cure. The latest data from the US-funded Zambia Population-based HIV Impact Assessment (ZAMPHIA) shows that the country is already approaching control of the HIV epidemic, something that seemed impossible less than a decade ago.
Building on this progress, at the 2017 United Nations General Assembly, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson launched the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Strategy for Accelerating HIV/AIDS Epidemic Control for 2017-2020.
The US Strategy sets a bold course for accelerated PEPFAR-supported implementation in a subset of 13 high-burden countries, which have the greatest potential to achieve HIV/AIDS epidemic control by 2020.
Zambia was identified as one of the 13 countries that PEPFAR will support to reach 90 percent of people living with HIV who know their status, 90 percent of people who know their status accessing treatment, and 90 percent of people on treatment having suppressed viral loads across all ages, genders, and at-risk groups in the next three years.
Based on the ZAMPHIA data, 67.3 percent of People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV) in Zambia know their HIV status. Of those who know their HIV status in Zambia, 85.4 percent of PLHIV are receiving lifesaving Antiretroviral Treatment (ART). Of PLHIV on ART in Zambia, 89.2 percent are virally suppressed. When a person is virally suppressed, the level of HIV that remains in the body is so low that their ability to transmit the virus to others is significantly reduced.
This contribution to the health of the Zambian people is a direct reflection of the strong commitment of the American people to partner with Zambia in its fight against this epidemic.
Through PEPFAR, the US government has invested more than $3 billion to support the HIV response in Zambia. This support has translated into lifesaving antiretroviral treatment (ART) for more than 740,000 people, including more than 39,000 children. We are proud of these achievements, but at the same time recognise that the long-term success of the national HIV programme depends on the Zambian people.
In order for Zambia to seize the opportunity of this unprecedented moment, each person in Zambia must make the decision to know his/her HIV status and start treatment immediately if positive.
Ignoring your HIV status will not change your status; it will only make you and the people you love more vulnerable to the virus. Furthermore, discriminating against people living with HIV will not safeguard your community from the virus, it will only make people hide in the shadows and refuse to access services that would benefit the overall health of the community.
Girls beginning at age 15 and boys at age 25 become significantly more vulnerable to HIV. Support them. Help them navigate this vulnerable time so that they can in turn become parents equipped to raise an AIDS-free generation.
Zambia’s theme for World AIDS Day 2017 is “Ending AIDS starts with me”—highlighting that the overall success of the country depends on individual decisions made by you, the Zambian people.
On the eve of World AIDS Day, I encouraged every Zambian to take stock of the different roles you play in your community—mother, father, sister, brother, teacher, religious leader, etc.—and identify ways that you can support the people around you to know their status, start treatment immediately if positive, and create a supportive environment that is free from stigma and discrimination.
The author is United States PEPFAR country co-ordinator for Zambia.

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