Paidamoyo Chipunza Senior Health Reporter
Up to 375 000 Zimbabweans will be able to test themselves of HIV through saliva swabs for the next two years under a $23 million pilot project being spearheaded by Population Services Zimbabwe in partnership with Government. In an interview on the sidelines of the 18th International Conference on Aids and STIs (ICASA) underway in Harare, PSI deputy country director, Dr Karin Hatzold, said the pilot project also known as the STAR project, was expected to start in February next year.
He said the programme would target people lacking access to voluntary counselling and testing services and key populations such as prisoners, commercial sex workers, long distance truck drivers and the youths. “The aim of this project in the first phase is to build evidence that HIV self-test is feasible and acceptable and can be distributed to different models of HIV testing, which include community based distribution, testing and counselling centres, public sector and key populations,” said Dr Hatzold.
She said this study had already been done in Zimbabwe at a lower scale in Harare and Shamva, but the February self test pilot would be done on a bigger scale targeting 375 000 people from throughout the country.
Dr Hatzold said Malawi and Zambia were also carrying out the same study simultaneously with Zimbabwe and a total of 750 000 people from the three countries were expected to take part in the study. “This is the biggest study that has ever happened on HIV self-testing and hopefully, results from the research will influence policy towards HIV self-testing,” she said.
In a separate interview, vice president of OraSure Technologies Inc — the company manufacturing the test kits — Mr Brian Reid, said the device was effective and easy to use. “All you need to do is to get a swab of the lower and upper gum once to get a fluid sample. Insert the device into vial containing buffer solution and read results between 20 and 40 minutes,” said Mr Reid.
He said both the device and buffer solution are sold together in a kit that costs an average of $5. Mr Reid said the test detected the presence of HIV antibodies in saliva. “Self-testing offers an additional testing option for people who are not reached by current testing approaches. It provides earlier treatment and reduces further HIV transmissions,” he said.
Speaking at the official launch of the self-test project in Zimbabwe on Monday, Health and Child Care Minister Dr David Parirenyatwa, said the introduction of the self-test should be done gradually and systematically to avoid depression.
“We want to remove the stigma associated with testing for HIV so people can test themselves but at the same time we want to do it gradually. To me the introduction of self-test kits needs to be done very systematically so that we do not have a situation where people are not counselled and it results in depression and people actually withdrawing so we need to balance it and do it appropriately,” said Dr Parirenyatwa.
Statistics from the Ministry of Health and Child Care show that an estimated 1, 2 million people are living with HIV in Zimbabwe but only 66 percent of them know their HIV status.