Namibia, 31 March: A national campaign aims to increase men's involvement in HIV health programmes
By Suzanne Beukes
KATUTURA, Namibia, 31 March 2011 – Israel Ndeshaanya and Elisabeth Nagula live together with their 8-month old son, Nicolas, in the township of Katutura.
Israel is rare among men in Namibia. Elisabeth is HIV positive, but to him it doesn’t matter. "Since the day she came to know about her status, I never said any bad words to her or pointed fingers to her,” he said. “We are just as we have been.”
The couple went through Namibia’s Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme when Elisabeth became pregnant with Nicolas, whose HIV status is negative.
Such male involvement is hard to find. In Namibia, like many other African countries, men’s participation in health programmes tends to lower than that of women.
Recent research conducted by UNICEF and the Namibian government shows that only about 3 per cent of male partners of women in the national Antenatal Care Programme tested for HIV in 2010, compared to 96 per cent of women.
The research also shows that, while men have a low participation rate in antenatal care, they do have a bearing on their partner’s adherence to the PMTCT programme.
Often they can actively work against the goals of the programme, by interfering with testing, treatment or feeding choices, delaying access to care or withholding financial assistance.
By contrast, supportive men like Israel have a positive effect on the participation of women and children in the PMTCT programme.
New targetThis fact is something that Namibian First Lady Penehupifo Pohamba aims to promote through her new campaign, which is supported by President Hifikepunye Pohamba , UNICEF and other aid organizations.
Launching the campaign, the President emphasized the vital role men play in caring for the well-being of their partners and children, saying the health of the whole country was at stake.
“It is not enough for Namibian men to provide the basic necessities such as a house, food, water, electricity for their families. They should also become actively involved in health issues such as the prevention of HIV Aids pandemic,” he said. “Health is not a women’s issue. It is an issue for both men and women.”
President Pohamba set a target for Namibia to increase participation by men in HIV testing from about 3 percent to 25 percent by the end of this year.
Improving servicesNamibia has one of the world’s highest rates of prevalence of HIV. Nearly 19 percent of all pregnant women were reported to be HIV positive last year.
Namibia started its PMTCT programme almost a decade ago. Since then it has been rolled out to 238 of 335 health facilities across the country, treating some 59,000 pregnant women every year.
But good coverage doesn’t always translate into low rates of mother-to-child transmission. Active involvement of men in the treatment of their partners and children is not the only area that needs to change.
The quality of services also needs improvement, if Namibia is going to reach its goal of an HIV-free generation by 2015.
This includes treating women in need of ARV drugs as early as possible, rapidly rolling out to more efficacious ARV prophylactic regimens, and testing babies for HIV when they are between six and eight weeks old.
Breast is best
The First Lady’s campaign is also advocating revised World Health Organisation guidelines on infant feeding.
These guidelines recommend that HIV-infected women only breastfeed their infants for the first 6 months, and that they and their infants take ARVs and prophylaxis at the same time. Afterwards, complementary foods should be introduced.
“There can be no doubt that for all women, even HIV-positive women, that breast is best for themselves and for their infants,” said UNICEF Namibia Representative Ian Macleod.
By improving the overall quality of services to HIV-positive pregnant mothers, and by involving their partners in the process, Namibia hopes Elisabeth and Israel’s story of raising a healthy HIV-negative child will become the norm rather than the exception.
More stories from Namibia
“Towards Universal Access" on HIV/AIDS (2010)
World AIDS Day: Stocktaking report 2010