HIV testing: Campaign out to change the “No Please”

But when the husband demanded they both go for the HIV test, she simply laughed off the idea – telling him that she was safe. Her argument was that it can only be the husband who would bring the virus.  

Such is a situation happening in thousands of homes across the country – subject for a new campaign to be launched over the weekend countrywide. This year’s Rwanda World Aids Campaign will focus on voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) among couples to make it more effective.

HIV prevalence in Rwanda is 3% with a 2, 2% in rural areas and 7, 3% in urban, according to the latest government statistics. However, despite the low rate, the 2007 Project San Francisco survey shows that there has been an increase in new heterosexual infections in Kigali.

The infections have increased from 55.1 % to 91.7% among discordant married couples and among couples living as concubines and from 60.3% to 94.2% among irregular partners, the survey noted.  

The possibility of having discordant couples when one partner tests HIV positive and the other HIV negative is a situation which is not well known but has been demonstrated in Rwanda since 1989 by Project San Francisco.  

Part of the explanation for this is that a big proportion of couples do not recognize the importance of protected sex. This lack of knowledge increases the risk of contamination among the healthy partner. Moreover, the phenomenon of discordance leads to familial conflicts with unpredictable consequences such as separation, divorce and coercion to have unprotected sex.

At Family Health International sites, studies have showed that percentages are as low as 30% of clients attending VCT with their partner, indicating a need to promote couples VCT.   

The campaign to encourage people to respond to voluntary testing and counseling programmes has been organized by Government – through all local administrative units down to the villages.

Across the country, all villages (imidugudu) are to carry out the month community works or Umuganda on Saturday – after which the communities would have to revert to discussions on the way forward with the problem of low response to testing.

This special November Umuganda – as it has been dubbed – will include a 2 hours dialogue session in all Umuganda sites where the community service will end with Communication on HIV Response. 

“HIV transmission among couples who are ignorant of their HIV status is one of the main ways through which the HIV epidemic is spread”, says Dr. Anita Asiimwe, the Executive Secretary of the National AIDS Control Commission (CNLS). 

Testing allows responsible sexual partners to protect each other from HIV by encouraging open dialogue about HIV transmission, she adds.

UN joins campaign

It is a campaign that UN Agencies in Rwanda say they are going to join. The programme is a part of the two months long World Aids Campaign to promote Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT) to reduce new HIV infections.

As part of UN action plan to support countries in HIV response, Heads of UN Agencies and UN HIV focal points will be involved in this specific activity to learn more about grassroots realities as regard to HIV/AIDS trends.

"All Rwandans have the right to know how to prevent HIV infections and have access to voluntary testing. With this campaign we’re encouraging everybody to have themselves, their partner, and children tested", says Aurelien Agbenonci, UN Resident Coordinator in Rwanda.

For Dr Kekoura Kourama, the UNAIDS Country Coordinator, programs such as family planning and prenatal consultation as well as pediatric consultation will only achieve their objectives if couples work together.

The report `Global AIDS Epidemic 2007’ by UNAIDS estimates 33.2 million HIV infected people around the world. In the sub-Saharan Africa, alone, the number of new infections has risen to 1.7 million, while the number of orphans worldwide is estimated to be more than 15 million with 11.4 million in the sub-Saharan Africa.