29 January 2019 | Press releases

The ATLAS project in West Africa: a big innovation at local level to achieve the global HIV screening goal by 2020

Dakar – HIV self-testing will be more widely disseminated and promoted in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal so that people with the highest risk of contracting HIV can know their serological status in full confidentiality and contact treatment and prevention services.

The ATLAS project, which involves HIV self-testing and free access to information about one’s health status, is funded by Unitaid in the amount of more than US$ 15 million and is being rolled out by the Therapeutic Solidarity and Health Initiatives (Solthis) consortium and the Institute for Research and Development (IRD) in partnership with the health ministries of the three countries being targeted.

The project was officially launched today in Dakar, Senegal, in the presence of Colonel Boubacar Gueye, chief technical adviser to the minister of health, and Professor Sheik Tidiane Ndour, chief of the AIDS and STI control division, both representing H.E. the Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Unitaid Deputy Executive Director Dr. Philippe Duneton and Solthis General Director Louis Pizarro.

The ATLAS project, which will run for 3 and a half years, involves the distribution of 500,000 HIV self-testing kits in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal, in addition to preparatory work to scale up a screening strategy by the governments involved and other partners, with the assistance of institutional, voluntary and research partners.

“For Unitaid, ATLAS is part of a more globalized investment strategy to promote HIV self-testing and screening in Africa, including in West and Central Africa, as a way to achieve high rates of HIV screening and thus help to reverse the epidemic trend”, explained Unitaid Executive Director Lelio Marmora.

Knowing HIV serological status is essential to stop the epidemic

In West and Central Africa barely half (48%) of people living with HIV know their HIV status.[1] Stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV are big obstacles to achieving the global screening goal.[2] Innovation is therefore essential to diversify screening options and reverse the course of the epidemic.

Even though infection rates are still moderate in West and Central Africa, including in the three countries where the ATLAS project is being rolled out, the HIV epidemic is concentrated within certain segments of the population, such as sex workers or men who have sex with men.  Through the use of self-testing kits, ATLAS will provide an additional screening option to reach populations at high risk of contracting the virus who fall outside the scope of existing screening services.

ATLAS project at the crossroads of technological innovation and societal trends 

By targeting populations at risk, ATLAS gives people who have never been tested before, or whose lifestyle warrants frequent testing, the opportunity and a tool to know their status and approach appropriate prevention and care services. The self-test, which is an oral device to detect HIV antibodies consisting of a spatula to be inserted into a reagent after rubbing across the gums, permits simple, rapid and confidential screening and empowers people to take ownership of their health.

The project will pave the way for the scaled-up introduction and deployment of the HIV self-test and stimulate the required demand for self-testing kits among these target populations.

The ATLAS Project also has a scientific aspect, bringing together IRD, which is piloting the research and evaluation component, the PAC-CI programme, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Imperial College (London).  Five studies will be undertaken to document the impact of HIV auto-testing as an essential complementary screening strategy and to identify which distribution models are most cost effective.  The findings will be shared with countries in the region to facilitate the adoption of the self-screening test and scale up its deployment.

Since 2015, Unitaid has played a pioneering role in promoting the HIV self-screening test with the Unitaid/PSI HIV Self-Testing Africa (STAR) Initiative launched by the NGO Population Services International (PSI) and its partners in six southern African countries.  To date, nearly 30 countries have incorporated the HIV self-test into their screening programmes.

Unitaid funding has bolstered MTV Shuga’s project to promote self-testing. In Côte d’Ivoire, the project will be rolled out by MTV Staying Alive Foundation in conjunction with ATLAS.  Its aim is to inform young people about self-testing via a television series.

[1] UNAIDS, 2017

[2] UNAIDS 90-90-90 objectives to be achieved by 2020 : 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.

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