It was another hot day in San Salvador, but inside CENTROLAB’s “kitchen” it was cool and quiet, except for the soft whirring sound of the centrifuge.
In her crisp white lab coat, Claudia López adjusted her glasses, leaned down to check on the machine and quickly wrote some notes on a piece of paper. For the last two years, the 33-year-old lab technician had been providing HIV testing and counseling services to at-risk key populations. Members of these populations are referred for testing by the Pan American Social Marketing Organization (PASMO) under USAID’s Combination Prevention Program for HIV in Central America.
“Because of my career [working with many types of infections], I didn’t always give much thought to HIV,” Claudia says while swiveling slowly in her chair. “But I don’t see it that way anymore.”
CENTROLAB is one of 46 private laboratories working in partnership with the Combination Prevention Program across five Central American countries, including El Salvador. To promote testing among the program’s target groups, especially men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women, they participate in various sensitization and training workshops to ensure that high-quality and friendly services are provided for each client.
“Last year alone I had to deliver 15 reactive test results,” Claudia recalls. “Had it not been for all the training we’ve received, I’m not sure I would have been able to handle them properly.”
Throughout Central America, private laboratories have played a significant role in offering a discreet and high-quality option for MSM and transgender women to be tested and linked to care. This is often indispensable, as many people in these groups have concerns about being identified as gay or HIV positive at public clinics, or that their test results won’t be kept confidential.
Although many private labs in the region do not enforce local HIV laws that require pre- and post-test counseling, labs that PASMO has sensitized and trained must meet several quality standards. They must also offer the updated “Consejería Plus” counseling guidelines developed by the Combination Prevention Program, which places a greater emphasis on linking recently diagnosed individuals to care as soon as possible during post-test counseling. Practicing quicker linkage to care contributes to the first two pillars of the global 95-95-95 goals—that 95% of HIV positive individuals know their HIV status and 95% of those who know their status are linked to care and treatment. In 2019 alone, private laboratory partners working with the program identified 58% of the total reactive cases in the region.
Claudia tucks a lock of her sleek brown hair behind her ear. “For us, it’s a win-win process, but along the way, I’ve learned a lot and changed the way I think about HIV,” she says with a warm smile.
“The way I see it, I like to treat others the way I want to be treated, so now I try to make everyone feel comfortable, whether it’s professionally or in my personal life.”
Banner image courtesy of Alejandra Cabrera, PASMO