Malawi: Ten years ago, MSF launched ARV treatment for its HIV/AIDS patients

February 20, 2011

Malawi: Ten years ago, MSF launched ARV treatment for its HIV/AIDS patients © Isabelle Merny / MSF

Since the 1990s, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been a serious public health issue in southern Africa, in general, and in Malawi, in particular. In 1995, MSF launched an HIV/AIDS treatment program. In 2001, the first patients were placed on antiretroviral treatment. As of early 2011, 18,000 patients are now taking these drugs.

1995: MSF begins its HIV/AIDS efforts.

Malawi has one of the world's highest rates of HIV/AIDS. Twelve percent of the population age 15-49 is infected. In 1995, MSF decided to focus its activities on HIV/AIDS in Mwanza, providing support to the Ministry of Health, offering medical care to patients and organizing mobilizing, prevention and education campaigns.

In 1997, the organization initiated an HIV/AIDS program in the rural district of Chiradzulu, in the southern part of the country, where nearly one in seven people is infected. The program provided medical care, treatment of opportunistic illnesses (like tuberculosis) and palliative care.

2001: taking up the challenge of ARVs

In August 2001, MSF placed its first patients on antiretroviral treatment (ARVs). At that time, the goal was also to demonstrate that these drugs could be administered easily in an environment with limited resources, few treatment options, minimal medical infrastructure, high poverty rates and low literacy rates.

Patient support groups were organized so that individuals taking ARVs could share their experiences, give patients a renewed sense of hope and address the lack of information about HIV/AIDS and treatments. Counselors helped patients with the daily issues of living with HIV/AIDS and ensured that they took their medications regularly. Tailored approaches were developed for children (approximately 13% of MSF's patients).

Access to ARVs in Chiradzulu district made a real difference for patients, their families and the community. MSF was a pioneer in this field as the national government did not provide free ARV treatment until 2004.

2006 – 2009: decentralizing treatment and transferring skills

Given the breadth of the needs and the country's shortage of health workers, new treatment approaches had to be developed, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, based on:

- Decentralizing care and treatment from the Chiradzulu district hospital to the region's health centers, which are closer to where patients live.

- Transferring skills: delegating responsibility to nurses for placing stable patients on ARVs and for monitoring them (health agents follow only complicated cases, such as children and pregnant women), setting up quarterly medical appointments for stable patients, screening and providing psychosocial and nutritional support through counselors

By 2009, each district health center was able to provide a full range of care, from screening to monitoring patients on ARVs. MSF continued to develop certain activities, such as support for prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT*), pediatric treatment and detection of treatment failures.

Early 2011

MSF supports HIV/AIDS treatment programs in 11 health centers in Chiradzulu district. The organization is also working in the hospital and, in particular, in the tuberculosis unit, where the mortality rate and percentage of HIV-positive patients are highest. Last, MSF is supporting the Ministry of Health in setting up a PMTCT* unit within the hospital.

We are currently following 27,000 patients, of whom 18,000 are taking ARVs. Every month, more than 650 people enter our program. More than 300 of them start ARV treatment immediately.

Our team is composed of approximately 20 international staff, on average and approximately 200 national staff. MSF also pays a salary supplement to around 150 Ministry of Health employees.

The Belgian section of MSF works in Thyolo district, where it also runs an HIV/AIDS treatment program.

*Prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS: PMTCT

A PMTCT program has been operating in the Chiradzulu health centers since March 2008. HIV-positive pregnant women monitored in this program receive specific treatment and ARVs and benefit from methods for preventing transmission of the virus to their baby, both in utero and during labor and delivery. In 2010, MSF treated approximately 1,700 pregnant women in this program.

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