Since 1988, the 1st of December each year has been dedicated as an International Day for raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic, remembering those who have died from the infection and showing solidarity with all those living with HIV. As we celebrate 30 years of World AIDS Day, this year’s edition is particularly pertinent due to the need to get everybody living with HIV on treatment, thus the theme “Know Your HIV Status.”
We have made remarkable progress from where we were 30 years ago. The number of AIDS-related deaths is the lowest this century, with fewer than 1 million people dying each year from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide. In Nigeria, annual new HIV infections dropped from 350,000 in 2003 to 210,000 in 2017, a 40 per cent decline over the period. In the not too distant past, people living with HIV (PLHIV) used to travel long distances to access treatment. NACA, through Global Fund support, broadened the reach of treatment services by establishing 185 new treatment centres across the country. This revolutionary first step permanently changed the HIV landscape in the country.
Today, working with partners, we have 1,639 health facilities providing comprehensive HIV/AIDS services across the country. This has enabled us to put almost 1.1 million Nigerians on HIV treatment. In addition, NACA also installed 185 GeneXpert machines in these facilities for prompt diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB), which remains the leading cause of death among PLHIV. This has been acknowledged as the largest GeneXpert initiative in the world.
NACA is working with stakeholders to improve our domestic contribution to the national response and this is beginning to yield positive results. Targeted stakeholders include state governments and the organized private sector. In this regard, the organised private sector, in collaboration with NACA, have concluded plans to launch the HIV Trust Fund to harness private sector contribution to the national response resourcing. These efforts are aimed at changing the narrative of over dependence on donor funding for the national response, to that of increased domestic resourcing, ownership and sustainability. Only recently, President Muhammadu Buhari approved a special intervention fund to ensure all those persons living with HIV that are on the country’s treatment programme continue to access life-saving treatment. Plans are also in place by the Federal Government to place an additional 50,000 PLHIV on HIV treatment annually, in fulfilment of Mr. President’s commitment at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly.
The results from the on-going National AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey (NAIIS) and other data sources will improve our understanding of the sub-population groups contributing to most of the new infections and where they can be found so that we can review our policies and strategies to appropriately target these groups with the right interventions. NACA is also working with partners to establish an HIV/AIDS Situation Room that will bring real-time actionable data to decision-makers for on-going analysis and response. Even as we do all of these, finding the unknown person living with HIV remains a top national priority.
With an estimated 3 million persons living with HIV (PLHIV), Nigeria has the second highest burden of HIV in the world – second only to South Africa. Nigeria is also home to more than half of the HIV burden in the entire West and Central African region. Our first target is to identify at least 90 per cent of these 3 million PLHIV and then place them on antiretroviral therapy. Currently, only about 1.2 million of these 3 million PLHIV have taken an HIV test and know their status. The remaining 1.8 million PLHIV have never taken an HIV test and therefore do not even know that they have HIV. Sadly, they are not able to protect themselves from HIV related co-morbidities and mortality, and their loved ones from contracting HIV.
This article is a call to action. We must increase investment and improve access to HIV prevention services, especially to those who need them most, even as we scale-up access to treatment. HIV testing is the gateway to all HIV services ranging from prevention to treatment. Therefore, HIV testing remains a number one priority for the AIDS response at the global, regional and national levels. This is the only way we can progress faster towards the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets (i.e. 90 per cent of all infected with HIV know their status; 90 per cent of those who know their status are receiving treatment; 90% of those receiving treatment have their viral load suppressed to undetectable level). If we must achieve the 90-90-90 targets by 2020, the first step all of us must take is to establish our HIV status by taking a HIV test today. This step is so simple but most powerful in the fight against AIDS.
NACA appreciates NEPWHAN, the civil society networks, development partners, the faith community and the private sector for their immense contribution to the success we have recorded against the pandemic till date. Whilst we acknowledge that there is still so much to be done to place us on the right trajectory towards 90-90-90 goal by 2020, it is very important to acknowledge where we are coming from and how we got to where we are today. Our mindset should be that of progress whilst looking forward to a HIV-free generation with hope, optimism and determination in order to get the work done.
Today, most public hospitals provide comprehensive HIV/AIDS services at absolutely no cost. Knowing your HIV status has many advantages: it is the entry point to HIV treatment, prevention, care and support services. If you test positive for HIV, rest assured that something can be done about this. You will be placed on HIV treatment which is easily accessible, affordable and straightforward, that will keep you alive and well. Within 3 months of starting treatment, the amount of viral load in the blood will fall to such low levels that transmission to partners or unborn child is unlikely to happen. Therefore, having a HIV diagnosis and commencing treatment is not only important for your health but will also protect your loved one. Knowing your HIV status is really a win-win situation for you and your loved ones.
As we remember all those who have lost their lives to the HIV epidemic, please get a HIV test done today. It can save your life.
Please call NACA’s toll free line 6222 (for 9mobile and Airtel) for any information you may require on HIV/AIDS including the HIV testing service centre closest to you.
– Aliyu is the Director General, National Agency for the Control of AIDS .
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