Zambia

Mobile testing and treatment fight HIV/AIDS in Zambia’s Mpika District

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Rose Namilinga tests a young couple for HIV; both are negative. She also talks to them about planning for the future.

By Christyne Bahringer

MPIKA, Zambia, 11 March 2008 – One in five pregnant women in Zambia is HIV-positive. It is a heart-stopping figure, but it also explains the increasing rates of paediatric HIV that doctors are facing in hospitals and clinics across the country.

In Lusaka, the capital, recent data from the University Teaching Hospital indicate that an estimated 40 per cent of all infants and children admitted to the malnutrition ward are HIV-positive. This information has been gathered as a result of the hospital’s policy of offering voluntary HIV testing for every mother, infant and child who is admitted.

Such critical details on HIV are not available throughout Zambia, however. Outside of urban centres such as Lusaka and Ndola, families lack easy access to hospitals and clinics. For example, in Zambia’s largest district, Mpika – home to about 165,000 people – there is just one government hospital, Mpika District Hospital, and one doctor, Mulindwa Tarcis.

Reaching the most vulnerable

Known and respected throughout the district, Dr. Tarcis is surrounded by some of the most capable and dedicated nurses and community health workers anywhere. Together, he and his team tirelessly reach out to the people of Mpika, especially mothers and children vulnerable to HIV and AIDS.

Last year, UNICEF helped Dr. Tarcis organize a mobile HIV/AIDS unit to reach the most vulnerable. He recruited some of his best staff for the innovative project.

“There are no decent roads into the district, and no one has transportation anyway,” said Bowas Lukama, who now coordinates the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV in Mpika. “So UNICEF donated the vehicle and some supplies to get us started. Now we travel the district regularly, visiting the 19 health posts throughout the area. Sometimes, we arrive to queues of over 100 people waiting to be tested.”

‘We are all affected’

A frequent stop on the mobile unit’s journeys is Mpepo, a tiny village about 100 km from the district hospital. The coordinator of the local health post, Mubita Clement, is always happy to see the unit arrive.

“We are lucky to be on the route. Without the mobile HIV/AIDS unit, our people might never get tested or treated,” he said.

AIDS has taken quite a toll on this small community. On a recent visit to Mpepo, the unit encountered a community meeting in which dozens of health workers and local volunteers were discussing the impact of the disease.

“We are all affected. I am caring for my brother’s children, now that he has been killed by AIDS,” said a local herdsman and village leader.

Just before the meeting ended, a boy stood up and appealed for help. “Both my parents are dead because of AIDS,” he said. “I quit going to school, but I want to go back. Can someone help me?”

Prevention and treatment

UNICEF specialist on PMTCT Dr. Joanna Nikulin believes that support for efforts such as the Mpika mobile HIV/AIDS unit will save more children – as well as their mothers and caregivers – from HIV infection. In addition, these efforts can help provide anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to manage the illness for people already living with HIV and AIDS.

“Thanks to this team of professionals, one of Zambia’s most vulnerable populations has access to voluntary testing and counselling, not to mention on-the-spot ART,” said Dr. Nikulin. “Even infants and children can be given ART now that our partners are providing free drugs and medications.”

Because of funding for anti-retrovirals from the William J. Clinton Foundation, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and other partners, HIV/AIDS is becoming a treatable, chronic disease in Zambia.

“ARTs have been available worldwide for over a decade now, [but] they continue to be unaffordable to the greatest number of people suffering from HIV and AIDS – women and children living in developing countries,” said UNICEF Representative in Zambia Lotta Sylwander. “Challenges can be overcome, as clearly demonstrated in Mpika District.

“This is the power of partnership and dedication, and the driving force behind UNICEF’s mission to protect women and children in Zambia,” Ms. Sylwander concluded.


 

 

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UNICEF’s Rob Grossman reports on new programmes in Zambia that aim to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
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