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Achieving HIV-Free Generation Possible Says New Zimbabwe CDC Director

  • Ndimyake Mwakalyelye

Nine-year-old Tumelo shows off antiretroviral (ARV) pills before taking his medication at Nkosi's Haven, south of Johannesburg, in 2014.

Nine-year-old Tumelo shows off antiretroviral (ARV) pills before taking his medication at Nkosi's Haven, south of Johannesburg, in 2014.

Zimbabwe has gained much credit for halving its HIV-prevalence rate from nearly 30% in early 2000, to the current 15%. Operations director Raymond Yekeye of the National Aids Council attributed the decline to the country's aggressive prevention strategies, which have reduced the rate of HIV-infections.

“We have coded significant progress in responding to HIV over the years, and I think all indications are there, we have over 800,000 people currently receiving treatment, our HIV-prevalence has declined more than half, 50 %, new infections have also continued to decline,” says Yekeye.

The new country director at the U.S. Center for Disease Control Dr. Beth Barr, who replaced Dr. Peter Kilmarx, said she was encouraged by Zimbabwe's persistent preventive messages and practices such as male ci rcumcision, and stringent adherence to recommended practices such as testing. She said these have made a positive impact.

"Zimbabwe is renowned for the efforts and progress specifically in the medical male circumcision program," Dr. Barr said.

She said Zimbabwe's strategies are key to meeting the 90-90-90 target set by UNAIDS to have 90% of people living with HIV knowing their status, have 90% of people with HIV on Anti-Retroviral Therapy or ART, and enable those 90% on treatment to have a reduced viral load by the year 2020.

“Zimbabwe does an incredible amount of testing every year, which is very encouraging, and we do know that there is about 50 % coverage of ARTs in people living with HIV,” Barr said.

But in a previous interview with VOA's Zimbabwe Service, NAC's Monitoring and Evaluation Director, Amon Mpofu, said Zimbabwe has surpassed 50% coverage.

“Our coverage for those who are on anti-retroviral therapy, it’s above 80 %, which is classified as universal access. So what it means is that Zimbabwe has actually achieved universal access,” said Mpofu.

However, in a recent interview with NewZimbabwe, Health and Child Welfare permanent secretary Gerald Gwinji said while 800,000 people are on ART, an additional 500,000 people living with HIV urgently needed ART, but the government was low on resources.

Despite Zimbabwe's overall gains in reducing new infections, there is increasing concern over the rise in HIV infections particularly among the youth, a trend Raymond Yekeye of NAC described as concerning.

"We are also worried about the age groups, especially new cases in young people," said Yekeye.

Dr. Barr said girls in particular are affected, but she says the case is not unique to Zimbabwe.

"Overall there is a decline in HIV prevalence in Zimbabwe. We do see slight increase in some groups ...and it does need to be addressed," said . We do see a trend in young women, across the region.”

She highlighted a recent donation by the U.S.'s President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, to help contain the spread of HIV in young girls and women in Zimbabwe and 9 other countries.

“At the UN General Assembly last week, PEPFAR announced the investment of nearly half a billion dollars globally to support an HIV-free future for adolescent girls and young women. And I am very glad that Zimbabwe is one of the countries which PEPFAR identified as needing additional support specifically for youth," Dr. Barr said.

Whle the increases in HIV-infections among youth are of concern, Dr. Barr said she's more convinced than ever that an AIDS-Free Generation, as envisioned at a World Aids Day conference a few years ago is possible.

"Yes, I do, I do think it’s achievable, and actually, it’s really in the last year I came to realize that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn't mean that there is not an incredible amount of work ahead of us, and there are resource gaps both in terms of funding and human resource and infrastructure, in many other areas but I do believe it’s possible to contain this epidemic, yeah."

As Zimbabwe strives to reduce HIV infection and bring an end to the AIDS pandemic, health experts are concerned about the impact of stigma and complacency, which they says could reverse all the gains made in the fight against HIV in Zimbabwe.