Amsterdam – Unitaid stepped up its drive to revolutionise HIV diagnosis with today‘s launch of two grant projects that promote self-testing as a key to turning the course of the world’s HIV epidemic. Unitaid’s investments in HIV self-testing now stand at more than US $100 million.
The new projects, with partners MTV Staying Alive Foundation and France’s NGO Solthis, follow several groundbreaking Unitaid-funded initiatives that have proved self-test kits can be an excellent, affordable way to reach people in high-risk, often stigmatized groups where the virus is entrenched, as well as those who have never been tested before.
A quarter of the 36.9 million people living with HIV worldwide are unaware that they are infected, according to the latest UNAIDS report on the epidemic.
“The knowledge we’ve gained in piloting self-testing shows us that HIV self-tests can make a huge public health impact when introduced on a large scale,” Unitaid Executive Director Lelio Marmora said. ‘The first of the UN 90-90-90 targets calls for 90 percent of people living with HIV to know their HIV status by 2020, and self-testing has the potential to help get us there.”
To date, 59 countries have self-testing programs, up from 47 in 2017.
Unitaid is providing US$ 10.1 million to the MTV Staying Alive Foundation to embed storylines involving HIV self-testing and prevention into its very popular MTV Shuga TV drama, a series viewed by many millions of adolescents and young adults in Africa. The grant will also fund a multimedia campaign and peer education programmes aimed at people 15 to 24 years old, one of the segments of the population most vulnerable to contracting HIV.
“The MTV Staying Alive Foundation is delighted to be partnering with Unitaid to create three new MTV Shuga campaigns in South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire,” said Georgia Arnold, Executive Director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation. “Our 360 degree approach enables us to reach a wide range of young people, providing them with entertainment that will ultimately help them make informed decisions and shape their lives for the better. This collaboration is a unique opportunity to create demand for HIV self-testing kits and PrEP and create behavioural change in this key target population.”
Solthis’s $US 15.7 million ATLAS project will introduce and promote self-testing among people at high risk of HIV infection, and their partners, in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal. The project will use outreach programmes that are already in place to connect with hard-to-reach groups where HIV is prevalent. Knowledge gained from the project will show the best ways to deploy self-testing and integrate it into national health programmes.
ATLAS plans to distribute about 500,000 test kits, which is expected to stimulate more investment in West Africa. ATLAS stands for Autotest, libre d’accéder à la connaissance de son statut VIH, (Self-test to find out one’s HIV status).
“We know the urgency in focusing on accelerating HIV testing progress in West and Central Africa. ATLAS will respond to this need by adopting a complementary and innovative approach with self-testing,” said Louis Pizarro, CEO of Solthis. “It will allow us to target hard to reach groups at high risk of HIV who are not currently accessing testing services. We are proud to work with IRD on this project, and that Unitaid is supporting this innovative approach which has never been tested at this scale in the region.”
The market for HIV self-testing was virtually non-existent in lower-income countries when in 2015 Unitaid invested US$ 23 million in the HIV Self-Testing Africa (STAR) project with Population Services International. The two-year pilot project in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia proved that test kits could penetrate groups where testing was otherwise low, and that the tests could be performed by people who have no medical training.
The success of STAR motivated Unitaid to seek out more projects with the potential to create a powerful market for self-testing in all low- and middle-income countries, and has been the driving force for greater country and donor interest in scaling up the strategy.
In 2017, Unitaid and implementing partners embarked on a second phase of the STAR project, expanding it to South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho, with the support of those governments.
“By expanding HIV testing beyond the clinic and into the hands of those we need to reach most — adolescents, men and other high risk groups — we make it easier for them to know their status and access treatment, in a way that works for them,” said Karl Hofmann, President and CEO of Population Services International. “Putting more power and control into health consumers’ hands is smart, effective and overdue.”
This month, Unitaid’s financial support of the World Health Organization’s prequalification program led to approval of the first HIV self-test kit. Prequalification by WHO is an internationally recognised approval that enables countries and large funding bodies, such as the Global Fund, to procure and distribute medicines and other health products.
Unitaid is also a member of the MenStar Coalition, launched yesterday at the conference in Amsterdam by Sir Elton John and Prince Harry. MenStar supports innovative ways to deliver HIV testing and treatment services to men. Unitaid and partners are participating in MenStar’s “human-centered design challenge fund”, a competition to find great design ideas that can be used to promote HIV self-testing among men.
- Related news: “MTV SHUGA” launches three new campaigns in South Africa and Côte d’Ivoire, focusing on HIV prevention and self-testing
Dominique De Santis (Amsterdam), Unitaid, firstname.lastname@example.org, cell. +41 78 911 5327
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