Swaziland Red Cross eases access to ARVs

Published: 30 November 2004 0:00 CET

Solveig Olafsdottir in Swaziland

It is not long since Jane Dhlamini discovered HIV status, but she is adamant that that knowledge has kept her alive.

Since testing positive last year, she has had access to both Red Cross programmes and social health services unavailable to her before. Today she is much more aware of how to minimize the impact of the virus through the right diet and changed behaviour.

“I am speaking from my heart to encourage everybody to go and get tested,” says the 53- year-old mother of nine.

“It is not just to please the health workers. When you know your status, you also get appropriate help. And I thank the Red Cross – if it was not for them, I would have passed away a long time ago,” she insists.

Jane especially thanks Lenhle Dube, the Baphaphali Swaziland Red Cross nurse and HIV/AIDS home-based care supervisor at the Sigombeni Red Cross Clinic some 45 km from the capital, Mbabane.

“I was coming in and out of the clinic, each time with a new ailment,” Jane recalls. “Then Lenhle came and discussed with me what the cause of all these illnesses may be, and asked if I would take an HIV test. It was the earnestness of the counselling I received from her which persuaded me to get tested.”

Instead of giving up after receiving her devastating results, Jane feels stronger and more optimistic about the future. Her family has benefited from the Red Cross food security operation in Swaziland since 2002, and they have received seeds and fertilizers to grow their own maize.

Since she was diagnosed, she has also been eligible to sign up for the Swaziland Red Cross food security pilot programme, supported by the Finnish Red Cross, which provides families affected by HIV/AIDS with a vegetable garden and poultry so that they have access to essential nutrition.

Swaziland has one of the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, with some 38 per cent of the adult population infected. The Red Cross programmes to tackle the pandemic therefore play a crucial role.

Jane was not unfamiliar with the disease before she herself was diagnosed, as she nursed her own daughter for a long time until she died of AIDS last year.

The daughter left behind a sick child, who has been in and out of the hospital, and is being cared for by her grandmother. Jane is also caring for her daughter-in-law, Hleziphi, who at 28 is bed-ridden because of TB and other illnesses.

Hleziphi joined the Red Cross home-based care programme last year, but has been unwilling to be tested for HIV because she is too scared of the results.

That is one of Jane’s major concerns: that her children and husband, while supportive of her desire to speak so openly and freely, are unwilling to know about their own status.

“It is like a thorn in my heart that my husband and children have not wanted to be tested. If they knew their status, they would also have access to treatment if they needed it. It would be much better if they did,” she says warily.

By treatment, Jane is also referring to the anti-retroviral (ARV) therapy that health authorities in Swaziland are offering to those people living with HIV/AIDS who are physically and socially eligible for official assistance.

But the only administrative centre for determining whether you qualify for getting treatment and for the provision of the drugs is in the capital Mbabane. Many people feel too weak to go and explore that possibility.

Jane shares the sentiment. She feels it is too far to go every month for a check-up.

But that is about to change for the population of Sigombeni district. Soon they will not have to travel to Mbabane to get tested for their HIV status, as the Red Cross is building Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) facilities at its clinic to provide their clients with more holistic services.

The Red Cross will furthermore be extending its services at the maternity ward of the clinic by offering treatment to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This is all in addition to the general health services the Red Cross provides at its clinic, and to its home-based care and food security programmes.

“The Sigombeni Clinic is spearheading our pilot project for the VCT centre and the provision of ARVs to pregnant mothers,” says Sibongile Hlophe, acting secretary general of the Baphaphali Swaziland Red Cross Society (BSRCS). “We are working in collaboration with the Swiss Red Cross, and they will be supporting this project for the next 3 years.”

Hlophe underlines that the Swaziland Red Cross is also working in close cooperation with health authorities, as they are currently responsible for the provision of all ARVs in the country.

The BSRCS application to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria was also successful, so Hlophe is optimistic that the Sigombeni project can be rolled out to other districts where the Red Cross has health and care programmes and clinics.

The Swaziland Red Cross hopes that in future it will be able to extend the programme to what is called PMTV+, which means that both parents and child will be provided with ARV treatment.

The BSRCS is confident that once the VCT centre opens in Sigombeni, more of its clients will want to know their status, and seek the help to which they are entitled.