LUSAKA. – The Zambian government yesterday backed down on its earlier decision to introduce mandatory HIV testing, saying testing will not be forced on citizens. Last week, President Edgar Lungu declared that his government had introduced mandatory HIV testing and that anyone who visits a health facility for any ailment will be tested for HIV as well.
But the announcement caused an uproar, with some stakeholders saying it was against human rights as testing should be consented to by the individual.
Minister of Health Dr Chitalu Chilufya said in all HIV testing, the health practitioners will be seeking the consent of the patients and that patients will have the option of opting out if they do not want to be tested for HIV.
“Before any blood is drawn from your body, consent will be obtained and the tests or any kind of diagnosis explained to the patient. It is not like there will be police officers who will be arresting those people that will opt out but it is important to encourage everyone to know their HIV status,” he said when he appeared on a live interview on state broadcaster, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation on Sunday evening.
He said the health practitioners have been trained to ensure that they adhered to the global standards and medical ethics on HIV testing.
The idea was to encourage people to know their HIV status and, if found positive, put them on life prolonging treatment early enough.
“There is no need to wait for people to fall sick before they can start life-saving treatment,” President Lungu said.
Those who have supported mandatory HIV testing explain the benefits of knowing one’s status as prolonging of a life that could otherwise be lost prematurely and also thwarting new infections by way of putting people on treatment.
Medical experts argue that putting people who are HIV-positive on treatment is in a way a preventive measure.
“HIV treatment is not just treatment, it also prevents HIV because it reduces the viral load,” the Minister of Health said.
Speaking at the launch of the Zambia National Health Strategic Plan 2017-2021, Dr Chilufya said there is nothing wrong with routine HIV testing because it is meant to save lives.
He spoke about how Zambia has lost about one million people to Aids since the first case of HIV was recorded in the country.
The minister lamented that the most productive labour force – skilled people, professionals and artists – who could have helped transform Zambia’s economy, have been lost to HIV and Aids.
Dr Chilufya said President Lungu was on firm ground to call for mandatory HIV testing because the uptake of voluntary counselling for HIV as well as condom use in Zambia is low.
It is estimated that 400 000 HIV-positive people in Zambia do not know their status.
Out of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in Zambia, only 67 percent know their status. This means that a significant portion of the population is unaware of their HIV status.
In other words, people don’t want to test despite Government providing free anti-retroviral therapy (ART). Apart from the benefit of early treatment, knowing one’s HIV status is good because being in the know helps to regulate one’s sexual behavioural pattern.
Many organisations, including the World Health Organisation and United Nations, had commended Government’s decision to encourage people to know their HIV status and to provide anti-retroviral therapy (ART).
“The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) commend the Government of Zambia for its commitment to ensuring that people in Zambia know their HIV status, have universal access to anti-retroviral therapy and are virally suppressed in line with the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets by 2020; and achieve the overall goal to ending AIDS by 2030 as a public health threat.
“Of the estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV in Zambia, only 67 percent know their status.
“There are, therefore, approximately 400 000 people who do not know that they are living with HIV. The situation calls for intensive, innovative and effective HIV testing strategies that are in line with WHO and UNAIDS global guidance,” the organisations said in a statement.
However, Human Rights Commission chairperson Mudford Mwandenga said Zambia needs to adhere to the United Nations (UN) guidelines on HIV testing and counselling which discourage mandatory testing.
“HRC would like to particularly call upon the Government to revisit the recent policy pronouncement on mandatory HIV testing because it is in conflict with internationally agreed principles and practices on reducing the spread of HIV and AIDS,” Mwandenga said. – Xinhua/Zambia Daily Mail/HR.