Over two million HIV self-test kits are set to be distributed across the country, this as the world’s largest self-testing programme, HIV Self Testing Africa (STAR) initiative reaches SA shores.
STAR intends to distribute over two million self-test kits to South Africans who are unaware of their HIV status and might be looking for a different way of testing.
The Society for Family Health (SFH), Wits Reproductive Health Institute and the Clinton Health Access Initiative have been selected to set up the STAR initiative in South Africa, with initial focus on Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga provinces. The project will later expand to include North West, Free State and Limpopo.
“The bold new approach to HIV screening will be a huge undertaking as South Africa has about seven million people living with HIV and many are still unaware of their status,” explains Miriam Mhazo, Country Director of SFH.
STAR will support the government’s goal to close the HIV testing gap by creating easier access to testing for hard-to-reach populations, with the ultimate aim of increasing the uptake of HIV prevention and treatment services.
Unitaid initially funded STAR in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, where the initiative demonstrated that first-time testers, young people and more men can be reached through HIV self-testing. It showed that HIV self-testing helps to break many of the barriers that prevent people from knowing their status, with 60-90% of individuals in rural communities taking up the offer to self-test. Many who tested positive were successfully referred for treatment, and men who tested negative were more likely to take up prevention services, such as medical male circumcision. In Zimbabwe, 80 percent of men who self-tested HIV-positive reported that they had been referred to post-test services.
Encouraged by these results, Unitaid decided to support STAR’s expansion into South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho.
The kits allow for HIV testing in the privacy of one’s home or another venue of choice. This is one way of addressing issues of access, stigma and confidentiality that are possible barriers to testing at conventional healthcare facilities.
“Our New Start experience shows that people want to test under different circumstances and for different reasons. For instance, when they have had a risky sexual encounter, when they become aware that their partner may have another partner, become pregnant or when they suspect infection because of another medical condition. While many are happy to test through a health facility, far too many are not and we must find ways to accommodate them,” says Mhazo.
The kits will be distributed through workplaces, educational settings, communities, health facilities and peer distribution. The project will be rolled out to reach more sexually active individuals, with the priority being those aged 15-24. Self-testing will be infused into complementary services, among them reproductive health, contraceptive, post-rape and PrEP programmes. SFH will pursue different social marketing activities, like activations, printed materials and social media campaigns, to raise awareness and boost uptake.
The programme’s goal is to make a significant contribution to the achievement of the United Nation’s 90-90-90 treatment targets. These call for 90% of people living with HIV to be diagnosed, 90% of those diagnosed to be on treatment and 90% of those on treatment to be virally suppressed by 2020.