Note From The Field: Fighting HIV/AIDS in the Democratic Republic of Congo
In the early years of the epidemic, HIV/AIDS was almost the definition of death; most people didn’t know what illness it was that was striking down some of our friends.
Although we’re lucky to have a relatively low HIV rate in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at 3.7 percent of the population, the devastation caused by DRC’s long international war has left the health system and general infrastructure in a state of disarray. There are estimated to be more than 1 million people living with HIV in DRC, and only a fraction of them have any access to services or treatment for HIV.
In the last 10 years, EGPAF has been at the forefront of reducing transmission of HIV from mothers to their children in DRC.
In 2001, EGPAF was the first DRC government partner to introduce prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) services and HIV testing at clinics.
Since then, EGPAF has expanded programs in both urban and rural areas to continue fighting against pediatric HIV, and has been a leader at the national level in pushing policies that ensure people in DRC receive the best type of care for HIV and AIDS.
EGPAF's programs in the DRC are keepingHIV-positive mothers healthy, and their babies HIV-free. (Photo: EGPAF/James Pursey, 2012)
Currently, funding is also a problem, particularly for two provinces that EGPAF supports. The PMTCT programs in Bas-Congo and Bandundu Provinces in the west of the country are ending this year.
EGPAF is currently the only PMTCT provider in all of Bandundu Province, and no other group or organization has ever provided services there. This is one of the most underserved provinces with the poorest infrastructure and the highest rate of poverty in the DRC.
Bas-Congo Province is another with very few international organizations providing HIV services, but suffers a high HIV burden, due to the Matadi Port on the Atlantic Ocean and a major transport road.
With the end of their PMTCT programs, there will be no clinics or hospitals offering PMTCT services in these provinces, home to approximately 12.5 million people. Without medicines and services to provide treatment for people living with HIV and prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, people will continue to die unnecessarily, the number of orphans and other vulnerable children will continue to increase and families will be pulled apart, and the epidemic will continue to spread.
EGPAF’s programs and support in DRC during the last decade has made a difference for the health of millions of people. Pregnant women were counseled on the how to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to their children, most of them were tested for HIV, and HIV-positive women were assisted to limit the risks of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Some children were certainly saved from HIV; I’m sure among them there will be important people who will grow up and play a key role in rebuilding DRC.
Such efforts made by EGPAF to integrate PMTCT into more general health services have had an incredible impact on the DRC’s HIV epidemic. I hope those served by EGPAF will continue to fight against HIV/AIDS in order to help DRC to achieve the elimination of pediatric HIV/AIDS.
And I hope that people from around the world will support us in our fight to end this epidemic.
Dr. John Ditekemena is EGPAF's country director for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is based in Kinshasa.