18 March 2010

South Africa: Country Launches Massive HIV Testing Campaign

From April 15, everyone attending a clinic or hospital will be offered an HIV test, regardless of whether they have symptoms of the disease or not.

Dubbed the HIV Counselling and Testing campaign, or HCT, this is the most ambitious HIV testing campaign in the world, according to SA National AIDS Council (SANAC) co-chairperson Mark Heywood.

The HCT's target is to have 15 million South Africans tested for HIV by June next year at any of the country's 4 300 health facilities.

HCT's launch was scheduled to be announced at a press conference this week but it was delayed until March 25 to allow the Health Minister time to canvas support for the campaign from a wide range of organisations and ensure that South Africa's health facilities will be ready to provide HIV testing services when the campaign kicks off.

"This is a special campaign of SANAC and the government, so we will be raising funds from our development partners for testing kits. Health facilities won't be expected to provide those," Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi told a gathering of the SANAC leadership forum in Durban yesterday (17 March).

But he stressed that he expected very health facility to be in a position to test people by mid-April and to use their own staff and facilities to do so.

All health workers have already received a letter from the Health Minister explaining the campaign.

It has four objectives: to increase health-seeking behaviour; to encourage South Africans to know their HIV status; to equip those who test HIV-negative with ways of ensuring that they don't get HIV; and to create a quick and easy entry point to accessing wellness and treatment services for those who test HIV-positive

"The mainstay of the fight against any disease is to prevent it from happening," said Motsoaledi. " You don't have to be a scientist to know that. We grew up knowing that 'prevention is better than cure' at all times. But if you have failed to prevent it and it has happened, you have to treat it. We do accept that the fact that we have got so many people on treatment, might be the failure of prevention."

The HCT campaign will run until the end 2011, which is when the current National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS is due to end.

The campaign was first mentioned on World AIDS Day 2009 when President Jacob Zuma announced new protocols for the prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission and the treatment of HIV, effective as of April 01.

"I don't have a feeling that South Africans understand that the biggest weapon [against HIV] must be prevention," said the Minister.

"In the budget read by Minister Pravin Gordhan, the HIV/AIDS budget increased by 33% over the previous year. If you look at the budgetary items which the government has done, whether it's education, housing, water, electricity, 33% is the highest increment of any of the other budgetary items," said Dr Motsoaledi.

"We can't keep on increasing by 33%. We have got to cut the rate of infection. That's where the issue of prevention comes in. If we keep on increasing that by 33% we will reach a situation in South Africa where the whole budget must go to treatment of HIV/AIDS, and I don't think any country can afford that. So, our war of prevention is extraordinarily important.

The HCT be based on a routine HIV test offered to all patients who will have the option to refuse it. Until now, only pregnant women and people showing HIV symptoms have been offered HIV tests.

However, Motsoaledi stressed that, while in the past people we asked to volunteer for an HIV test while during the campaign people would be encouraged to test, "no one can force any human being to test."

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