Lusaka, Amsterdam 27 January 2004 - The international humanitarian organisation Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) today begins free antiretroviral drug treatment for HIV/AIDS patients in the poverty-stricken Nchelenge district in north-eastern Zambia.
"It's a big shame to see that most the HIV/AIDS efforts of the Zambian government focus on urban areas, while hundreds of thousands of HIV/AIDS patients in countryside still have no access to lifesaving drugs," says Joke van Peteghem, MSF Head of Mission in Zambia. "Our programmes challenge the assumption that HIV/AIDS treatment is too complex to be implemented in rural areas."
Day by day, MSF teams travel to villages and see the continuing breakdown of these communities caused by HIV/AIDS – a massive scaling up of treatment programmes in rural areas is imperative. In terms of numbers of patients, MSF can only help a fraction of the people in need.
"By proving ARV-treatment is possible in a rural peasant society, we hope to trigger other actors, such as the UN, NGOs, donor governments and the Zambian government, to step up their efforts in this regard," said van Peteghem.
The World Health Organization expects that the infection rate in the countryside of Zambia will peak in 2004 at about 22%. Poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and lack of access to health care all increase the spread of the disease. On top of that, the closeness of village life increases the negative effects of stigmatization, so people are reluctant to disclose their HIV status and seek help.
Antiretroviral treatment offers patients the possibility to regain their health, to live as normally as possible, to work, and take care of their families again. Even more, the launch of ARV programmes introduces the possibility of changing widespread perceptions of HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a disease that can be not only be lived with but also survived.
As across much of rural Africa, in Nchelenge district so far few effective measures have been taken to stop the spread of the disease. As a result, one in four persons is estimated to be infected.
"Besides the limited focus of the government programmes on hospitals in urban areas, other barriers are the distances between patients and health centres and the fact that patients must pay 40.000 Kwacha (9 $) per month for drugs. This dramatically cuts the access of people living in poor rural areas to lifesaving treatment. Very often peasants have no salaries at all, and providing enough food for their families is already a struggle. Sparing 40.000 Kwacha for drugs is out of the question" said van Peteghem.
MSF has been providing medical care to HIV/AIDS patients in Nchelenge since 2002 and some two thirds of the 350 patients currently in the program qualify for ARV treatment. MSF hopes to have 400 patients on ARVs by the end of 2005 and show that there are no more excuses for the lack of treatment to Zambians living in the countryside. In total, MSF is treating some 11.000 aids patients in 19 countries across the world.
MSF hopes to have 400 patients on ARVs by the end of 2005 and show that there are no more excuses for the lack of treatment to Zambians living in the countryside. In total, MSF is treating some 11.000 aids patients in 19 countries across the world.