The United States Government has renewed its support towards the fight against HIV in Guyana with a grant of US$1.5 million geared at assisting the country to cross the finish line in controlling the HIV epidemic here.
The grant is part of the US President Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) under which Guyana has already benefitted from some US$185 million for HIV prevention, testing, care, and treatment programmes since 2004.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, US Ambassador to Guyana, Sarah-Ann Lynch said the partnership between the two countries on the HIV epidemic has saved lives.
Ambassador Lynch noted that this new grant will support the Ministry of Health and civil society partners until September 2022 in their fight against HIV.
She noted that Guyana has made significant strides on this front with over 90 per cent of persons living with HIV knowing their status, which is critical for them to have access to life-saving HIV treatment. However, in the same breath she pointed out that much more needs to be done in the area of treatment.
“With treatment, individuals’ health can be sustained, and the levels of virus can be reduced so low that the virus cannot be transmitted to others. However, of every four individuals diagnosed, only three are on treatment. This is not enough – and lives are at stake. Therefore, our priority must be to increase treatment coverage, aiming to ensure that everyone diagnosed with HIV is immediately linked to life saving treatment services. We believe strongly that services must be client-centred, meeting individuals where they are, with what they need. Our PEPFAR support will help strengthen this, including for the most vulnerable,” the US diplomat posited.
Against this backdrop, Health Minister Dr Frank Anthony reassured the US diplomat that this US$1.5 million grant will be injected into addressing HIV treatment and other critical areas, where efforts have been lagging due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have developed a strategy of introducing self-testing and so we want to roll that out and we’re going to do more on that to roll it out. But this is going to ensure that we get more people to test and to know their status… We are aiming to get more people into treatment and therefore, we are going to work – using some of the resources from this grant – to get some of the people who were on treatment and fell off, to get them back on treatment. And also, for some of the people who know their status but were not linked to treatment sites, we’ll be able to do some of that as well. So, we’ll be able to increase those numbers to get closer to the desired numbers that we’re looking for… but that’s going to take a lot of work,” the Minister posited.
Dr Anthony went on to outline that another area they will be using this grant for is to ensure that those HIV persons on treatment become virally suppressed and unable to transmit the infection.
But the Health Minister noted that one of the challenges they have been facing is not being able to do viral loads for all the patients who need it. As such, he said monies will be directed into addressing the viral loads needs.
Additionally, efforts are also afoot to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission. He explained that there are still a few cases of HIV transmission from mothers to their unborn child, and one way they are looking to eliminate this is testing exposed babies with dry blood spots.
“For a number of years, Guyana was not able to do that properly and so we are now introducing this process of dry blood spots. And this grant is also going to help us with that. We also have taken a decision to provide PrEP (medicine people at risk take to prevent getting HIV) for all persons to who want PrEP. Before this was quite limited to discordant couples so we want to now make sure that anyone who feel at risk, they could come into any one of our clinics and get PrEP. Again, we’re going to get some assistance through this grant,” Dr Anthony stated.
On this note, the Health Minister acknowledged that a lot of work has to be done in order for Guyana to achieve its 90-90-90 UNAIDS goal, which aims to ensure that 90 per cent of all people living with HIV will know their status, 90 per cent of all people diagnosed will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy (ART), and 90 per cent of all people receiving ART will have viral suppression, all by 2020.
However, Minister Anthony said because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Guyana was unable to achieve all three of the 90s.
“In terms of testing, getting people to know their status, about 93 per cent of those persons who have been tested know their status… We want 90 per cent of those patients who know their status to be on treatment and unfortunately, when we look at our 2020 statistics, we only have about 74 per cent of those patients who have been on treatment. And of those who have been on treatment, we want at least 90 per cent of them to be virally suppressed and in 2020, we’re seeing only about 69 per cent of those patients have been virally suppressed,” he noted.
The Minister further added, “So for us to really work to achieve the 90-90-90, and even to get to the 95-95-95 by 2025, there is still a lot of work to be done. And that’s why it’s so important that this grant is coming at this time… It is going to help us to focus on all three of these 90s and try to get us close to where we ought to be, and even aspire to get to the 95s.”
Dr Anthony went on to laud the partnership between Guyana and the US because of which local capacity has been tremendously enhanced to fight against the HIV epidemic.