By Sandy Garçon, External Relations and Communications Manager, PSI
Your Valentine’s Day checklist probably includes chocolates, a heart-adorned card and a bouquet of red roses. Perhaps a teddy bear. How about some peace of mind?
Beyond the grand gestures and candlelit dinners, Valentine’s Day is also a good occasion to reflect on how we can protect the people we care about, and ourselves in the process—namely from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
It may seem unromantic to raise the issue of HIV/AIDS on a day that celebrates love and romance. But let’s be honest: love and romance tend to lead to sex, well, everywhere.
This is essential because three out of every 10 people living with HIV are unaware of their status and might not have symptoms. These are also the same people who are likely to be sexually active.
The reality is that knowing one’s status is simply out of reach for many people worldwide due to barriers to HIV testing. Fear of stigma and discrimination, lack of privacy, lack of time, as well as the distance and cost of transportation to the nearest health facilities can often deter individuals from learning their status and getting care. That is why PSI—through the Unitaid-funded HIV Self-Testing Africa (STAR) Initiative—is hard at work to put innovations like HIV self-testing (HIVST) in the hands of those who need it most. In taking HIV testing beyond the traditional clinic and into the household, HIVST is empowering those who may not test otherwise and reaching higher risk groups, including men, youth and key populations, who have been reluctant to test through conventional options.
And it works. Men and youth, two groups that we have the hardest time accessing HIV testing services are eager to self-test from the privacy and comfort of their homes—and being linked to treatment and care.
The STAR Initiative, now in its second phase, is working with Ministries of Health in six southern African countries (Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) to integrate HIV self-testing into national policy, guidelines and health delivery systems.
We’re not stopping there.
With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PSI worked to analyze the global HIVST market, including the potential demand in nine priority countries (Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). This involved examining market constraints and determining the most appropriate interventions needed to improve demand and supply as well as the other enabling environment factors critical to the success of HIV self-testing.
PSI is also working, with funding support from the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, to demonstrate the potential of Kenya’s private sector to generate informed consumer demand for HIVST. While HIV testing has traditionally been driven by the public sector, self-testing opens up the possibility of utilizing private sector pharmacies to expand and extend the reach of testing.
In turn, these efforts will aid in rapid scale-up of HIVST throughout Africa and beyond. They are crucial to making self-testing accessible and to accelerating the achievement of the United Nations’ global HIV prevention and treatment goals.
Only through innovative approaches that bring HIV products and services closer to people, do we have the potential to reach those with unmet need and ultimately cover the last mile in the HIV response.
And HIV self-testing is a means to give people peace of mind and, if necessary, a chance to get on treatment quickly, so they can live in good health and continue loving for many more years to come.
Happy Valentine’s Day!