EC Aids Council in drive to increase ARV treatment for people living with HIV

It ends with me. That is the message the Eastern Cape Aids Council (ECAC) wants  to drive home with its new Undetectable equals Untransmittable (U=U) campaign.

Campaign ambassador Mandisa Dukashe, an Eastern Cape-born married mother of two HIV-negative children, says the aim of the U=U (Undetectable equals Untransmittable) campaign is to revive the downward slope of people affected by HIV/Aids.
Campaign ambassador Mandisa Dukashe, an Eastern Cape-born married mother of two HIV-negative children, says the aim of the U=U (Undetectable equals Untransmittable) campaign is to revive the downward slope of people affected by HIV/Aids.
Image: SUPPLIED

The initiative was launched for the first time in SA last week in the Buffalo City Metro.

Campaign ambassador Mandisa Dukashe, an Eastern Cape-born married mother of two HIV-negative children, said the aim of U=U was to revive the downward slope of people affected by HIV/Aids.

A nurse by profession, Dukashe said the country had failed to reach its targets for ARV treatment, which had been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the enforced hard lockdown.

SA has the biggest HIV epidemic in the world, with 7.5m people living with HIV in 2019. HIV prevalence is high among the general population at 19%.

The target by December 2020 was to have 90% of people living with HIV on treatment, but this number is only at 70%.

Of the 7.5m people living with HIV in SA, 64% have suppressed viral loads.

“By 2025 we need to have reached 95% of people living with HIV on active treatment. It’s quite scary and we need urgent interventions.”

The overall goal of the campaign is to reduce new HIV infections by 63% using treatment as prevention. 

According to science, an undetectable viral load reduces sexual transmission of HIV by 100%. 

“I found in countries like Vietnam and Zambia, targets had been achieved after adopting the U=U campaign. I then brought the idea to my province and it has been piloted here.”

She said one of the most important things was to de-stigmatise one’s status.

“One of the campaign’s focuses is to dismantle the stigma — both externally and internally. Externally in terms of discrimination at healthcare centres, and also internally, in your mind.

“Once you find out about your positive status, your mindset is very important. Acceptance and leading a healthy lifestyle are key.

“Taking medication gives you a chance at a longer life, while not taking it shortens your lifespan.”

Dukashe said failing to disclose your status to your partner also makes it harder to take medication.

“You will find for example that someone will be afraid to take their medication when their partner comes to visit for a few days. That adds to defaulting on treatment.

“Other partners will run away from a HIV positive partner while not even knowing their own status.”

Dukashe has been living positively since 2002. Her husband and two children are all negative.

Dukashe, accompanied by BCM deputy mayor Helen Neale-May, went on a walkabout last week to spread awareness of the U=U campaign.

ECAC monitoring and evaluation specialist Zeodor Arends said: “ARV treatment is free at any public health facility. People can go to any clinic in their community. 

“Even if they do not know their status, we encourage people to request an HIV test at any public clinic.”

Speaking on defaulting on treatment, Arends said: “At the start of level 5 lockdown, many people were scared to go to clinics to collect their chronic medications but with the support of development partners, ARVs were taken to people at home.

“Also the Department of Health strengthened and expanded their programme whereby people could collect their treatment from places such as Clicks pharmacies.

“As the province and Buffalo City, and with great help from development partners, people are collecting and getting their treatment and they have returned to clinics for the management of their health.”

According to Dr Pride Chigwedere of Unaids, the science is clear that people with suppressed viral loads cannot transmit HIV to their sexual partners.

He also further pledged the support of Unaids to the Eastern Cape U=U campaign.

Arends said the initiative would be piloted in all provincial districts.

“We have identified local municipalities in each district and the campaign is to be rolled out in those districts currently. 

“We have the district Aids councils and HIV and TB managers in each district, forming part of the campaign steering committee meetings. 

“On the 1st of December as part of the provincial World Aids Day we will be giving a report on the campaign from all districts.”

Neale-May said: “This year marks 40 years since HIV/Aids was first discovered, and we remember our loved ones, colleagues and friends who passed on.

“However, I want to celebrate those who are still alive and soldiering on, represented by the People Living with HIV sector.”

INFO BOX:

Campaign objectives are:

  • Increased ARV treatment initiation;
  • Increased viral load uptake;
  • Improved viral suppression;
  • Decreased loss to follow up.

 

According to Eastern Cape Aids Council statistics, as of July 31 2021 the province had 541,510 people remaining on antiretroviral therapy. Buffalo City had 68,935 in the public sector.

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