Investing in communities to make a difference in western and central Africa
Home to 5 million people living with HIV, western and central Africa is not on track to ending AIDS by 2030. Every day, more than 760 people become newly infected with HIV in the region and only 2.6 million of the 5 million people living with HIV are on treatment.
Insufficient political will, frail health systems and weak support for community organizations―as well as barriers such as HIV-related criminalization―are the most significant obstacles to progress. A regional acceleration plan aims to put the region on track to reaching the target of tripling the number of people on antiretroviral therapy by 2020 and achieving epidemic control. While progress has been made, that progress is not coming fast enough. Children are of particular concern―only 28% of under-15-year-olds living with HIV in the region have access to antiretroviral therapy.
“We need policies and programmes that focus on people not diseases, ensuring that communities are fully engaged from the outset in designing, shaping and delivering health strategies,” said Gunilla Carlsson, UNAIDS Executive Director, a.i., speaking at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Sixth Replenishment Conference, taking place in Lyon, France, on 9 and 10 October.
There are many examples of how investing in communities can make a difference. “The response is faster and more efficient if it is run by those who are most concerned,” said Jeanne Gapiya, who has been living with HIV for many years and runs the ANSS nongovernmental organization in Burundi.
Community-led HIV testing and prevention is effective, particularly for marginalized groups. “Most of the people tested by communities were never reached before and this shows how community organizations are unique and essential,” said Aliou Sylla, Director of Coalition Plus Afrique.
Reducing the number of new HIV infections among children and ensuring that women have access to the services they need remains one of the biggest challenges in the region. Networks of mothers living with HIV who support each other to stay healthy and help their child to be born HIV-free have been shown to be an effective way of improving the health of both mothers and children.
“Our community-based approach works. In the sites where we work we have reached the target of zero new HIV infections among children and all children who come to us are on treatment,” said Rejane Zio from Sidaction.
Financing remains a concern and although total resources for the AIDS response have increased, and HIV remains the single largest focus area for development assistance for health, domestic investments account for only 38% of total HIV resources available in western and central Africa, compared to 57% worldwide. Greater national investments reinforced by stronger support from international donors are needed to Fast-Track the regional response. Bintou Dembele, Executive Director of ARCAD-Sida, Mali, said, “We have community expertise, but we lack the funds to meet the need.”
Support is growing for community-based approaches in the region. Recognizing the importance of community-led work, Expertise France and the Civil Society Institute for Health and HIV in Western and Central Africa announced a new partnership on 9 October. “The institute brings together 81 organizations from 19 countries aiming to ensure better political influence at the global and country levels and to galvanize civil society expertise in programme delivery. This partnership is a recognition of our essential contribution,” said Daouda Diouf, Director of Enda Sante and head of the steering committee of the institute.
Shifting to a people-centred approach has been at the core of reforms in the region. A growing regional resolve to accelerate the response and to strengthen community-led approaches that have been proved to work provides hope for the future of the HIV epidemic in western and central Africa.