Grassroots access is key to getting millions onto anti-retrovirals, Red Cross Red Crescent tells Bangkok Conference

Published: 9 July 2004

A key factor in getting millions of people in poor countries onto antiretroviral treatment (ART) will be the access to communities and households provided by Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said on the eve of a major international HIV/AIDS conference in Bangkok under the slogan “Access for All”. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) “3 by 5 Initiative” aims to provide access to ART to 3 million people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in developing countries by the end of 2005.

The International Federation, and its constituent National Societies, as important partners of the WHO and national ministries of health, can play a crucial role in facilitating access to treatment for the most vulnerable members of society. There are currently over six million PLWHA in developing countries who urgently need access to ART, but only 400,000 have access to these drugs.

“Our unique contribution to ‘3 by 5’ is community mobilisation and our unparalleled access to households,” said International Federation Vice President Dr Mamdouh Gabr. “Our volunteer base is increasingly regarded as an essential component of the broad public health system that increases awareness, enables people to come forward for testing and receive ongoing care.”

Last year, the Federation decided to scale up its support for government efforts to get more people onto ART, launching the initial efforts in six African countries - Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe – all of which have well-established Red Cross home-based care and support programmes for people living with HIV/AIDS.

“Our service delivery model on access to care and ART is based on a holistic approach. That means that as a complement to the clinical care provided by ministries of health, the National Red Cross Societies, with their experience of working in the community and their ongoing home-based care programmes, can provide nutritional support and counselling as well as ensure adherence to ART,” explains Bernard Gardiner, Manager of the Federation’s Global AIDS Programme.

A key element of the International Federation’s new approach to treatment for PLWHA is the Masambo Fund, which is aimed at assisting staff and volunteers living with HIV/AIDS by providing them with access to life-saving ART, and thus ensuring that essential humanitarian assistance can be maintained in communities with high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. The fund is named after one of the first home-care volunteers trained by the Zimbabwe Red Cross (ZRC), who died of AIDS in 2001.

The Masambo Fund Board has just announced funding for anti-retroviral treatment for 20 humanitarians from the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies of the poorest countries in Africa: Burundi, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia. “We have lost too many active humanitarians, particularly in those countries where we urgently need to continue delivering support to vulnerable communities,” Dr Gabr, who chairs the Fund, said.

“Five years of guaranteed funding for the drugs does not solve everything. However, breaking down barriers to access helps to get National Societies ready for their role in treatment access for vulnerable communities. These staff and volunteers will often be leading role models of living positively with HIV,” Gardiner explains.

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