By Poloko Mokhele
Recent research by the UNAIDS shows that the number of new HIV Infections in Lesotho has dropped significantly, by over 30 percent, in the past nine years.
The survey found that the number of new infections dropped to 13,000 in 2018 down from 20,000 in 2010.
This drop is welcome news for the country that has one of the largest HIV epidemics in the world.
With HIV prevalence at around 25 percent, Lesotho is one of the countries hit hardest by the epidemic.
An estimated 330 000 people out of the two million population were living with HIV in 2016.
In the same year, 9 900 people died from AIDS-related illnesses.
The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in November 2017 indicated that the high prevalence of HIV and AIDS “accounts for more than 40 percent of all deaths in Lesotho”.
But UNAIDS’s latest survey has found that HIV-related deaths in 2018 fell to around 7,200, which is 25.61 percent lower than in 2015 when 8,200 deaths were recorded. In 2010, 7,200 HIV-related deaths were recorded.
According to the report, an estimated 340,000 people in the country now live with HIV, up from 300,000 and 330,000 in 2010 and 2015 respectively.
Of the 340,000 that were living with HIV in 2018, 12,000 were children aged under 14 while 190,000 were women.
Setup by the United Nations to tackle the epidemic, UNAIDS is leading the global effort to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It has set a highly ambitious target for 2020, which it calls 90-90-90.
By 2020, UNAID hopes that 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90 percent of all people diagnosed with HIV will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 90 percent of the people receiving the drug therapy will have viral suppression.
Lesotho Population-based HIV Impact Assessment (LePHIA) that was conducted between November 2016 and May 2017 found that 81 percent of people living with HIV (ages 15 to 59) in Lesotho knew their status, 91.8 percent of those who knew their status were on treatment, and 87.7 percent of that group were virally suppressed.
People living with HIV with suppressed viral loads live longer, have fewer complications due to HIV and are less likely to transmit the virus.
The UNAIDS survey also found that new HIV infections among women aged 15 and above dropped by 34 percent to 6,600 in 2018 from 10,000 in 2010.
It is being increasingly acknowledged that the contexts in which young women and girls live, often patriarchal and violent in nature, need to be addressed in order to reduce new infections, and ultimately end AIDS as a public health threat to the world.
But with the meagre health sector real budget which has significantly decreased as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), fully government-sponsored treatment and prevention campaigns cannot address all the health challenges.
It is against this background that a litany of initiatives, fully funded by billions in international aid, have been launched in Lesotho to augment government’s efforts to fight the epidemic.
The United States’ President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is one of those.
The U.S. government through PEPFAR support Lesotho’s leadership in the global HIV/AIDS response.
PEPFAR provides direct service delivery and technical assistance support in Lesotho to maximise the quality, coverage, and impact of the national HIV/AIDS response.
From 2004 to 2017, PEPFAR has invested a total of $384 256 000 in Lesotho.
Earlier this year, the U.S. government availed over M1 billion to the ministry of health for the financial year 2019-2020 as part of the ongoing support to help the country achieve HIV/AIDS epidemic control by 2020.
The U.S embassy in Maseru said the support was earmarked to build on the incredible strides Lesotho had been able to achieve in reversing the burden of the disease.
The PEPFAR massive funding has made antiretroviral widely available.
As of September 2017, PEPFAR in Lesotho was providing antiretroviral treatment for 151 799 people and had provided HIV testing services for 800 933 people. NW