- The low uptake of HIV voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) services in Zambia has forced the government to come up with a national testing day to encourage more people to know their status.
Director of the Zambian National AIDS Council Ben Chirwa, announced that on 30 June this year, all health facilities and AIDS NGOs will for the first time be conducting free HIV tests in all 73 districts of the country.
Chirwa told IRIN that the new campaign - which is to be marked annually - had been prompted by the fact that despite high levels of knowledge about the existence of HIV and the provision of free antiretroviral drugs through the public health sector, not enough people were coming forward to get tested.
"We have been carrying out HIV laboratory tests for close to two decades now but the uptake of VCT services is still unacceptably low. Out of our total population of over 10 million people, only about 13 percent (less than 1.5 million people) have undertaken HIV tests," said Chirwa.
"This is very worrying especially [considering] that most people only go for HIV testing after falling critically ill and we hope the national testing day will help change things," he added.
Nomsa Sibande, a researcher with the Zambia AIDS Related TB (ZAMBART) project, has been involved in a study trying to come to grips with people's reasons for not using VCT. Stigma remained the biggest obstacle, she found.
Zambians still associate HIV/AIDS with promiscuity and HIV-positive people are often scorned - particularly in rural areas.
Women - the hardest-hit population group - were reluctant to get tested as they feared that a positive result would lead to their abandonment by husbands or partners, Sibande said.
Zambia's prevalence rate stands at 16 percent, and the health ministry estimates that up to 1.2 million people could be living with the virus. According to Chirwa, the testing day campaign was hoping to get over 50,000 people tested countrywide, and would also help officials come up with new national estimates on HIV infection rates.
"This initiative aims at invigorating HIV prevention efforts with a sense of urgency similar to the one accorded to treatment... VCT is the entry point to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support because when people know their status, they make informed decisions to avoid infection or live positively with the virus," Chirwa added.
ZAMBART medical anthropologist Virgina Bond stressed, however, that "services need improving if people are going to come forward for testing".
The national testing day comes exactly a year after the Zambian government began providing life-prolonging ARVs free of charge at state health facilities.
Although the free treatment programme initially targeted 100,000 people before the end of 2005, only about 60,000 out of the 250,000 Zambians who need medication are currently accessing it.
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