The Malawian government launched a campaign yesterday to test all sexually active adults for HIV to try to identify thousands of people infected with the virus.
An estimated 14% of Malawi’s 12 million population are HIV positive but most do not know their status, which prevents them from getting effective treatment and also hampers efforts to curb the spread of the disease.
Health officials say they hope to test 130,000 people this week. President Bingu wa Mutharika’s government has distributed 300,000 testing kits across the country.
The testing drive will concentrate on Malawi’s rural areas, where more than 70% of people live and which are often out of reach of basic health care services.
“We want to encourage Malawians to go for the tests. We also want to take advantage to reach them with correct information on HIV prevention, treatment, care and support,” said Mtemwa Nyangulu, a health official.
About 6 million Malawians are in the sexually active age group but health officials say that only 1 million have been tested for HIV.
“This implies that the majority of Malawians do not know that they are carrying the virus because they have not gone for a test, a situation that poses a great threat to prevention effort,” said the health ministry in a statement, according to the South African Press Association.
More than 1 million Malawians have already died from Aids, leaving more than 900,000 children orphaned. The disease has strained the country’s basic health services and badly affected agriculture, the country’s economic mainstay.
Malawian health officials are struggling to establish a grassroots HIV-prevention campaign, especially in rural areas where HIV infection rates are still rising, in contrast to the declines seen in cities.
Nearly 30,000 newborn infants are infected with HIV every year because the government has not been able to provide the drugs that can greatly reduce mother-to-child transmission.
A small fraction of those with HIV are on the life-saving anti-retroviral drugs, according to officials.
More accurate statistics of the prevalence of HIV could help the Malawian government raise international funds for its programmes.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 80% of people with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa do not know they have the virus.
In May the World Health Organisation issued new guidelines, saying that in countries where HIV is prevalent health officials should test all those seeking medical treatment, unless they specifically chose against the test.
However, WHO said that no test should be done against a person’s wishes or without their knowledge.