The 33rd SADC Heads of State and Government Summit was held on 17 and 18 August 2013 in Lilongwe Malawi. On the sidelines of this meeting, AIDS Watch Africa held a meeting with the Heads of State and Government to discuss progress and challenges in regards to the HIV epidemic in the region. Following this meeting, it was reported that several SADC leaders lauded mandatory HIV testing as a viable strategy to curb the spread of HIV.
In response, the Director of ARASA, Michaela Clayton, highlighted that mandatory HIV testing is a gross violation of the human rights to dignity and autonomy, which will hinder the achievement of public health goals and negate the gains made in the AIDS response over the past decade in a press statement released on 22 August. “Instead, we should look critically at the underlying causes of the low levels of HIV testing and uptake of prevention and other HIV related services,” she explained.
The Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV (ZNNP+), an ARASA partner since 2012, also clarified their position on the call for mandatory testing. They point out that international standards require HIV testing to be confidential and accompanied by counselling as well as be conducted with voluntary and informed consent.
The organisation which represents people living with HIV further argues that mandatory testing would discourage people from seeking treatment and care. Mandatory testing and disclosure obligations run the risk of deterring people, especially women, from getting tested. Where due caution is not exercised, informing a woman’s partner of her HIV status may expose her to the risk of violence, eviction, disinheritance and severe abuses. “If Zimbabwe is to adopt the mandatory testing, the health system will have to be equipped with a comprehensive HIV management programme including CD4+ counts, Viral load testing machines and liver function testing. Health-care services will have to become capable of absorbing higher patient case-loads,” they said.
“At the moment it’s not possible to have mandatory HIV testing because once people are tested they will need to be initiated on treatment and yet the country is unable to clear the waiting list which grew due to the introduction of the new guidelines. Only about half the people who need ARVs are currently accessing them, therefore this will be a tall order for the nation,” explained Sebastian Chinhaire, ZNNP+ Chairperson. The organisation further argued that the country is relying on foreign donors to sustain people on treatment. Until the Zimbabwean government can fund HIV management programmes, only then can they introduce mandatory testing. However, ZNNP+ highlights that regular HIV testing is important because it might encourage people to modify the behaviours that cause the spread of the disease if they know they are infected. There is also a general agreement that it is in the interest of infected individuals to get tested, since early treatment has proven effective in slowing the progress of the disease.
Editors Note: This article was originally published in AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) Quarterly Newsletter Issue 14
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