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US AIDS agencies to improve health care services in Malawi

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by Lameck Masina

MCHINJI, MALAWI — U.S. agencies that work to fight HIV this week began a five-year effort with Malawi's government to improve health care for Malawians infected with the virus. The program - targeting seven districts across Malawi - aims to build on the country’s success in combating HIV/AIDS. The United Nations says that from 2001 to 2011, Malawi reduced infections by 72 percent, more than any other country in Africa.

Spearheading the new program is a non-governmental organization, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, with funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Malawi is touted as the first country in Africa to provide lifelong treatment to all HIV infected pregnant and breast feeding women. The country has increased the number of women on antiretroviral treatment by seven fold in just a few years - meaning 7,000 babies who would have been born with HIV are instead healthy. Other African countries are now following in Malawi’s path.

Deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Malawi, Lisa Vickers, says despite these successes, anyone working on the frontline knows well that the challenges in maintaining and building on these gains are many and daunting.

"HIV remains the biggest killer of Malawians with about 100 deaths and 30 infants infected today and every day," she said. "The program is designed with these challenges in mind to further support Malawi’s effort to achieve an AIDS free generation."

She says the United States government is supporting the Glaser Foundation because it has the expertise and an impressive global track record in fighting HIV with a focus on mothers and children.

Charles Lyons, president and chief executive for the Glaser Foundation, says in the last 12 years, his organization has supported close to 700,000 pregnant women in Malawi in accessing services that prevent HIV-positive pregnant mothers from infecting their unborn babies.

"We have specific focus around new pediatric infections," he said. "We think we can bring below five percent transmissions rate. Malawi can do that. It’s not a question of ‘if’ it’s a question of ‘when’ and with support from PEPFAR and CDC the program that we are launching is taking us in that direction."

He says over the next five years, the program will also seek to counsel one million Malawians, test and provide medical male circumcision to 50,000 adult men - which will help avert 15,000 new infections among them and their partners - offer HIV testing to about 400,000 pregnant women as well as providing life-long ARV treatment for 25,000 women expected to be found positive.

The foundation will be implementing this project with the Malawi government’s health personnel at district levels.

The seven districts under the project are Ntcheu, Dedza, Mchinji - where the new program was launched -- and Ntchisi in central Malawi, and Rumphi, Mzimba North and Mzimba South in the north.

Malawi’s minister of health, Catherine Gotani Hara, says they are looking for "observable change" in the government's operations.

"These systems that will be strengthened during this project should be long term," Hara said.

She hopes the project and the lessons her ministry learns will serve as a model for a national approach to combating the virus.