Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs

Mobile HIV Test Unit a Hit in Congo

Arsène Séverin

BRAZZAVILLE, Aug 26 2010 (IPS) - “I came here out of curiosity, but I ended up taking an AIDS test. I have the results,” Gerard, 30 years old, told IPS. He adds, right before leaving: “The results are negative.”

“My brother and I knew that the van was coming here and we came as volunteers,” says Judith, one of the few women in the ranks of those who came to be in Kinsoundi, a neighbourhood in south Brazzaville, the Congolese capital.

“We have already done over 50 tests, and there’s still a crowd waiting,” Dr. Wilfrid Hervé Poaty pointed out to IPS. Hervé manages the mobile screening unit, a van purchased in December 2009 by the National Council Against AIDS (known by its French acronym, CNLS) in Congo.

Each of the van’s appearances in public places like markets and major intersections in the city consistently draws crowds. “There are usually 100 to 115 tests per outing. Amongst these, we often find two to three people with HIV,” said Dr. Poaty.

According to the CNLS, from the programme’s launch in December 2009 until Apri 2010, 5,275 people were tested and 114 (2.4 percent) were diagnosed with HIV.

The mobile screening unit has encouraged more people in Brazzaville to know their HIV status. The vehicle is often surrounded by curious onlookers as well as those those seeking services. “Some churches and mutual aid societies have also invited us to come,” says Poaty.

In Congo, only 10 percent of the population knows their HIV status. The CNLS wants to raise this rate to 50 percent by 2013. “That’s why we have adopted this mobile strategy and it has been very successful,” says Poaty.

Approximately $215,000 was needed to purchase the van and furnish it with a sampling chair, a fridge, a laboratory and a generator. That money was raised thanks to a telethon held in Brazzaville in February 2009.

There are other testing centres, but very few people use their services. In five years, from 2004 to 2009, the country’s two anonymous voluntary testing centres screened 40,085 people, amongst whom 4,323 were found to be HIV positive.

“We screen less than ten cases per day,” says Dr Daniel Yokolo, head doctor at the Centre de Bissita in Bacongo, a neighbourhood in south Brazzaville. “Most people don’t know that the screening is free, and some are afraid to know their status.”

The other centre conducts even fewer tests. “We receive two to four people per day. But we provide more support services than screenings,” says Dr Merlin Diafouka of the Outpatient Treatment Centre (CTA).

Those who test positive, are referred to care centres. “Treatment is available here, and people come because they know that it’s free,” said Yokolo.

However, patients at the centre are not satisfied with the care received, even demonstrasting at the Ministry of Health in June.

“The products we are given, such as Alivia or Calitri, are expired, and there’s often supply shortages,” Valérie Maba told IPS. Maba is HIV positive and serves on the board of the Congo Network of HIV+ Persons, based in the capital.

“[Drugs] for new patients aren’t added to the balance sheets, even less so for existing cases.”

“It’s a real disaster,” says Thierry Maba, president of the Association of HIV Positive Youth of Congo).

The authorities insist that medicine is, in fact, available. “Stopping treatment of HIV positive patients would be criminal. Drugs are available everywhere, there are only a handful of patients who want to stir up trouble, and we do not know why,” says Alexis Elira Dokekias, Congo’s Director-General of Health.

“We have not had drug shortages for two years. All support centres have their medication, and the government keeps a close watch. When these patients began their campaign, we showed them our supplies which included medicines. None of the medicine is expired, contrary to their accusations,” he added.

However, IPS noted that the mobile screening unit was grounded for a period (from late-May to mid-June) due to missing chemical reagents to carry out laboratory tests, according to the CNLS communication office.

Some 1,700 patients receive continuous treatment at the Brazzaville CTA. “The drugs are available. We always have a three month reserve in our supply to avoid shortages,” Dr. Merlin assured IPS. The CTA is funded by the French Red Cross.

According to statistics published by CNLS in 2009, 3.2 per cent of Congolese are living with AIDS, roughly 120,000 people.

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