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HCT campaign: the numbers so far

When the campaign was launched in April last year, it was expected that about 1.6 million or 11% of the 15 million South Africans targeted for HIV testing, would come out HIV-positive. The projection was based on the national HIV prevalence level of 11%. But of the 10.2 million people who tested in the national HIV Counselling and Testing (HCT) campaign, about 17 – 18% or round about 1.7 million people were found to be having HIV infection. While figures vary from province to province, Mpumalanga is leading in the preliminary data, says Dr Thobile Mbengashe, Chief Director of the HIV and AIDS and STIs programme in the national Health Department.

“What we know now is that the national average of people who were positive was about 17% - 18% of the total number that have been tested. The results of the campaign itself concurred with the results that we’ve been getting on the annual antenatal survey, which actually shows where the biggest burden of the disease in relation to the provinces is and the districts. Mpumalanga was slightly more than we expected at around 24%, KwaZulu-Natal was about 22%, Gauteng was the third largest and, then, we had a number of provinces which were consistently low in terms of the number of people testing positive… that’s Western Cape, Northern Cape. And, co-incidentally, Eastern Cape and Limpopo were actually more or less below the national average”, Dr Mbengashe says.

Preliminary figures show that over 12 million South Africans have been counselled for HIV since April last year when President Zuma and the Health Minister launched the national HIV Counselling and Testing campaign. Of these 12 million people, about 85% or 10.2 million have accepted the HIV test after counselling. This means that the department is almost 5 million under its target.

“When the target of 15 million people was set, that was an extremely ambitious target”, Mark Heywood, deputy chairperson of the South African National Council (SANAC), which co-ordinates the HCT campaign, admits.

“I don’t think there is any parallel in the history of the global response to HIV where so many people have been offered HIV testing and so many people have been tested for HIV within such a fixed period of time. Although we may not have met 100% of the target for testing, I think that what has been achieved must be celebrated”, he adds.

“In many instances, the quality of the counseling and testing itself could have had an impact. Secondly, the demand for testing – the long queues and the time it actually takes… it takes about 30 – 45 minutes to go through the process… Most people would not have been able to do that. I think it’s also very true that there is a fear of the results of the test. People are very afraid to know the result. Some people were not ready. They exercised their right not to take the test”, says Dr Mbengashe, explaining why 15% of South Africans who were offered the HIV test did not accept it.

SANAC’s Mark Heywood finds it hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t want to know their HIV status.
“It raises the question why anybody at this point in time in our country would decide not to test because the message we’re trying to get out is that we all need to know our HIV status - that it is the best thing to know whether you’re negative or whether you are positive because whether you are negative or positive there are steps that you can take to protect and to preserve your health because part of this campaign is about: How can we get ahead of the HIV epidemic? In the past we’ve always lagged far, far, far behind the epidemic. One way to get ahead of the epidemic is to normalise HIV testing; it’s to use HIV testing as a way to try to begin to break down the stigma around HIV; and it’s to use HIV testing to try to get much larger numbers of people onto treatment”, he says.

However, Heywood believes that the campaign has started a revolution.

“In the course of just over a year – 15 months – this HCT campaign has begun a revolution in our response to HIV in this country. The challenge now is to continue with the campaign into the next National Strategic Plan. Also, the challenge is to identify what have been the weaknesses, what have been the problems with this campaign, but also fix them as rapidly as possible”.
It is not clear when the final results of the HCT campaign will be released. But what is certain is that the campaign will continue after the June deadline so as to encourage as many South Africans as possible to find out their HIV status.

Source: Health-e News , By Khopotso Bodibe

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