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Namibia at forefront of global push to increase AIDS treatment

© UNICEF Nambia/2009/Bloemen
Alfeus, 8, lost his mother to an untreated AIDS-related illness. Now he gets regular antiretroviral treatment from Onayena Health Clinic in northern Namibia as part of a vastly expanded HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention health programme.

By Guy Hubbard

‘Towards Universal Access’, a new report on scaling up HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts, highlights gains in HIV testing and counselling, prevention of mother-to-child transmission and other areas. Here is a related story.

OHANGWENA DISTRICT, Namibia, 30 September 2009 – Alfeus, 8, misses school once a month, which makes everyone around him happy. His absence is excused because he is receiving his regular anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment as part of a vastly expanded HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention health programme in Namibia.

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The boy’s family and friends are even happier that he has survived to school age. He was born to an HIV-positive mother who was never tested for infection and never received ARV treatment.

Alfeus was two years old before he was tested for HIV. His parents had died, but Alfeus was holding on just as conditions were making it possible for children like him all over the world to have a chance to grow up.

More than 4 million people in low- and middle-income countries were receiving ARV therapy at the close of 2008 – a 36 per cent increase in one year and a 10-fold increase over five years, according to a new report released today by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, also known as UNAIDS.

Improved access to health interventions

The report, ‘Towards Universal Access: Scaling Up Priority HIV/AIDS Interventions in the Health Sector’, puts the success down to expanded HIV testing and counseling, as well as improved access to services aimed at prevention of mother-to-child transmission, or PMTCT.

© UNICEF Nambia/2009/Bloemen
Alfeus eats with family members. His aunt (left) took over his care after both his parents died from AIDS.

Namibia, with one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection, is at the forefront of this change. In 2006, Namibia could afford ARV treatment for only a few hundred people. Last year, it treated tens of thousands – almost 70 percent of those in need.

Alfeus was able to get ARVs because of funding from the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Taking drugs to the patients

Making ARV medicines available in countries such as Namibia means bringing drugs and doctors closer to remote districts. Twice a month, a team of medical workers from the Shonomutango Centre in Onandjokwe drives to the Onayena Health Clinic, where Alfeus gets his medicine.

His family is poor and would not be otherwise able to afford treatment. “We don’t have money to buy food, and we don’t have money to always go to the hospital,” says Alfeus’s young aunt, Frida. In hard times, she borrows from the neighbours.

Onayena Health Clinic was built with PEPFAR funds in 2005. It is part of the Lutheran Missionary Onandjokwe Hospital, which serves a district population of 250,000, including 12,500 HIV-positive patients. Some 8,000 of those patients are currently on ARV treatment. 

Initially, local residents were nervous about going to the Onayena clinic because they felt it publicized their HIV status. Now, however, the centre is crowded with people coming for testing, treatment for HIV and tuberculosis, and antenatal care.

Early testing makes a difference

The health authorities’ priority is to identify expectant mothers who are HIV-positive during their first antenatal visit. UNICEF has provided technical support to the Ministry of Health for paediatric treatment and PMTC services, and for strengthening the capacity of health workers.

With high antenatal coverage and an estimated 80 percent of births delivered in hospitals, Namibia has one of the best PMTCT programmes in the developing world. The programme includes new blood tests that screen a child’s DNA and can determine HIV status when he or she is as young as six weeks of age.

For Alfeus and thousands of others like him, living with HIV has become an everyday part of life, as ordinary as herding the cows and fetching the water.

“I have a good boy,” says Frida. “He has no sickness. He does his daily chores. He can fetch water, he can look after cattle. He can do everything.”




19 September 2009:
UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on how Namibia has dramatically increased its treatment of HIV and AIDS.
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