BY FOSTER BENJAMIN:
In a fanned room at Chikwawa Police Station, two health-care workers sit quietly on a wooden bench. In front of them, a young police officer is waiting to get tested for HIV. He is here to know his status after years of unwillingness to go for voluntary counselling and testing (VCT).
Today, an initiative by Chikwawa District Hospital in partnership with Aids Healthcare Foundation and Partners in Hope has compelled the cop to shed off his fear and go for the prick that will eventually let him know his serostatus.
The young officer represents a growing number of men and women in uniform who shun VCT services for fear of stigma. In fact, many officers in Chikwawa are still giving testing a blind eye.
Titha Dziko, coordinator for HIV and Aids at Chikwawa Police Station, offers a familiar opinion on HIV’s targets: “To be a police officer does not mean that you are immune to the virus. You can contract the virus just like anyone else.
“Gone are days when people living with HIV and Aids suffered in silence and eventually died because there were no life-prolonging drugs.”
Such sentiments are echoed by Chikwawa District Hospital HIV Coordinator, Fred Mwandida. He admits that HIV and Aids do not discriminate in any way as they attack the rich and the poor, cops or civilians alike.
“The benefits of going for VCT are countless. To begin with, if you test negative, you know how to keep on preventing the virus since it is preventable. If you are positive, you are instantly put on medication and live your full life if you take the medication according to prescription,” Mwandida says.
He adds that life-prolonging drugs act as bullets as they ‘shoot deadly foot soldiers’. But he is quick to stress that the drugs just weaken the severity of the virus, not killing it.
Still, they help in slowing the toll of a pandemic that still has no cure over two decades after it first struck human beings.
Scientists, who are ganging up against the virus, could be making some progress towards discovering the cure, but they admit that in the meantime, treatment as prevention has the potential of reducing prevalence rates.
Thus, testing and being put on medication means the virus can be tamed as it becomes difficult to transmit.
In Chikwawa, 24,000 people are living with HIV, according to Mwandida and civil servants such as police officers and health-care workers are not spared.
Generally, not many cops and other officers are willing to have that life-changing jab despite that awareness campaigns on the same have gone to every corner of the country.
“It becomes very discouraging to us, health-care workers, if only a few people turn up for testing. We cannot deal with the pandemic if this continues,” Mwandida laments.
But the small numbers of people seeking VCT services are not deterring the determined health-care workers who have now taken the services to the cops’ doorsteps.
Focal person for Partners in Hope, Amos Makwaya, is optimistic that with time, more cops will get tested.
“We don’t want our police officers to die of preventable diseases,” he says. “We really want a strong police service that can deliver at any time.”
The initiative is largely seen as a key feature in HIV prevention, care and support. Those implementing it hope that cops will embrace the VCT services for their own benefits.
“We believe that police officers will heed our calls to go for HIV testing. We are trying hard to ensure they get tested and assisted with whatever help they may need,” Jacob Pidini, who is regional prevention officer for Aids Healthcare Foundation, says.
The foundation is the largest provider of HIV medical care in the United States and is currently operating in 43 countries, including Malawi.
Pidini highlights the importance of closely monitoring those on HIV treatment so that they do not default.
“We will employ linkage officers who will reach out to rural communities in search of defaulters,” he says.
That, he adds, will complement efforts towards achieving UNAids target that by 2020, 90 per cent of people with HIV should know their status, 90 per cent of those should access ARVs and 90 percent of those on treatment should be virally suppressed.