LESOTHO: Govt moves to tackle AIDS pandemic
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
MASERU, 8 March (PLUSNEWS) - Lesotho's Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili at the weekend became one of the first heads of state to publicly test for the HI virus as he kicked off a free national HIV testing programme.
Mosisili, joined by other members of his cabinet, said that with his test he hoped to stem the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.
The high-profile response to the pandemic followed the launch on Friday of an HIV/AIDS crisis management manual – the first by any country - called "Turning Crisis into an Opportunity: Strategies for Scaling up the National Response to HIV/AIDS".
Lesotho, a small mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, is in the grip of an HIV/AIDS emergency. An estimated three out of every 10 people are infected with the virus, including 60 percent of the country's workforce. In the last six years, the average life expectancy has plunged from 60 years to 39 years.
Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said according to government estimates, in another 10 years half the teaching corps was expected to succumb to AIDS. At the current rate of infection, by 2010 Lesotho would record a negative population growth rate.
Most people PlusNews spoke to in the capital, Maseru, welcomed the government's attempts to address the pandemic with free HIV/AIDS testing facilities.
"Now no one will have the excuse that he or she cannot afford the test, so they don't know their status," said 15-year-old Bokang Rasekila.
"At least now, once people know their status, they will be helped. People are worried about their status and are scared to go and find out. Now that it is free, they will be encouraged to seek help," commented Sentle Thamae
The voluntary testing programme is estimated to cost US $10.1 million. An amount of $12.5 million was granted to Lesotho by the Geneva-based Global Fund for HIV/AIDS and TB programmes, but most of the money will be used to tackle AIDS. Other donors include the Irish government, the UK Department for International development and the United States.
Counseling and support services, and the provision of antiretroviral therapy to prolong lives, will accompany the national testing programme, Mosisili said.
The strategy, spelled out in the government's new manual on managing the crisis, includes making every citizen HIV/AIDS "competent", and has set a goal of halting the spread of the virus by 2007.
The manual was developed jointly by the Lesotho government and international partners, including UN agencies. Two of its recommendations have already been adopted by the government: the establishment of a new broad-based National AIDS Commission (NAC), and a commitment to mainstream the fight against HIV/AIDS into all government activities and programmes.
NAC's task is to coordinate, monitor and support the scaled-up response to the crisis. Besides the annual budgetary allocation to the Ministry of Health, the government has begun putting away two percent of the annual recurrent budget of each ministry to finance HIV/AIDS programmes.
Mosisili pointed out that the battles against the pandemic and poverty were interlinked - an aspect highlight by Bellamy and James Morris, the UN Secretary General's special envoy on the humanitarian crisis in Southern Africa, who were present at the launch of the manual.
Of special concern to Bellamy was the rising number of girls dropping out of school to take care of parents or siblings infected with the virus. "There is also an increasing incidence of the virus in women aged between 15 to 24 years – 51 percent of them are believed to be infected, which means the mothers are dying, so there is growing number of AIDS orphans in the Lesotho society," Bellamy told PlusNews.
"Historically, fewer boys in Lesotho attend school, as they are taken out to herd cattle. While their numbers have not gone up, the number of girls has dropped," she added.
The country is estimated to have 100,000 AIDS orphans. "The government is trying to address that problem – boys and girls will all have access to free primary education by 2007," said government spokesperson Thabang Motsoasele.
Parents are being encouraged to send boys to school during the week and fulfil their herding duties over the weekend, while free primary education up to grade 5 is already available.
"Until people have access to vaccine to prevent the infection, the only vaccine is a social vaccine, which is education," said Bellamy. She pointed out that this could only begin in schools.