By Henr Neondo
All agree that Anti-retroviral drugs present the best hope yet for people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS.
But the means to get to know who among 1.9 millions of people living with AIDS in Tanzania need drugs and how soon still remains a challenge not only to the United Republic of Tanzania but to all other sub-Saharan African countries, often bedeviled by lack of diagnostic tools, few sites for voluntary counseling and testing, weak financing of HIV and AIDS programmes and poor doctor to patient ratios.
In Tanzania, the Minister for Health Prof David Mwakyusa admits that limited public health infrastructure is a major constraints to scalling up HIV treatment.
For example, there are only 300 VCT centres across the country and 12 diagnostic laboratories.
The ministry hopes to scale this up to 23 so as to cover all the regional referral hospital laboratories.
Like many countries in Africa, Tanzania faces significant health care challenges. Thanks to HIV and AIDS, life expectancy in the country is 48 years-about 30 years less than many European countries.
According to Mwakyusa, Tanzania’s HIV and AIDS prevalence rate now stands at 7%, the highest in East Africa.
61, 000 of HIV and AIDS patients are now on ARVs against the target of 450, 000 by 2008.
Complicating matters for the country, says the Health Minister is the fact that 50 percent of all HIV patients are co-infected with Tuberculosis and 30 percent of HIV patients who die out of AIDS-related illnesses die of Tuberculosis.
The country now has 80 multi-drug resistant cases of TB, which poses a further strain on health costs.
Resource-limited healthcare systems including a lack of modern hospital laboratories and trained laboratory workers continue to be key barriers to scaling up HIV testing and treatment for people with HIV.
In addition, Tanzania has just one doctor for every 24, 000 patients and matters are not helped by the huge exodus of trained health personnel to greener pastures. Currently, the country has 342 medical professionals out there, of which 111 of these are full doctors.
The Minister says that it costs TSh40 million to train a medical doctor. But poor remunerations and lack of facilities to facilitate a conducive working environment often forces the larger portion of these to end up serving societies that never spent a cent in their training, leaving the poor back at home unattended.
"Improving the health and healthcare of our people is a national priority and must involve NGOs, the private sector and international organizations", pleads Mwakyusa.
In response, the Abbott Fund appears to be leading other private sectors in coming up to the aid of Tanzania's efforts to the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Since 2001, Abbott Fund and the government of Tanzania have formed a unique public-private partnership to address critical areas of need in the fight against HIV and AIDS, including modernising the public health care system and infrastructure to expand access to HIV testing and treatment across the country.
Years down the line, the Abbott initiative, which is also targeting 69 other countries at differing capacities, is building capacity at more than 90 health centres throughout Tanzania, bringing HIV services to the people in some remote villages.
For example, last Wednesday, Abbott Fund opened a renovated Mt Meru Hospital Clinical Laboratory at a cost of USD698, 000, named after the former Minister for Health under Benjamin Mkapa, Mrs Anna Abdallah, in a partnership with the government.
On her part, the government provided new laboratory diagnostic equipment and reagents thereby improving the hospital's capacity to test 150 patients a day as opposed to 50 previously through automated tests that are said by the Abbott Fund's CEO, White D. Miles who was present at the opening ceremony, done faster, and results are available to patients on the same day.
This is good news to the residents of Arusha region with 312 villages. Only 148 villages of these have some health facilities and 164 do not have any form of health care centres to help combat common diseases.
According to Evans Balama, acting Regional Commissioner for Arusha region, malaria, diarrhea, Tuberculosis and HIV and AIDS are some of the most common diseases afflicting the region.
And like all other villages in Tanzania, Arusha’s villages health facilities suffer shortage of skilled medical staff, suffer periodic disease outbreaks and have inadequate and they are unevenly distributed with some patients forced to cover 100 kms to reach a health centre.
Moved to action, Abbott’s Chairman and CEO Miles White announced two initiatives aimed at improving access to health care and expand access to HIV testing and care throughout Tanzania.
Making the announced on Wednesday at the Mt Meru Hospital, Arusha, White also announced a 1 million rapid HIV tests to support national HIV testing programme.
Specifically, White said Abbott Fund will work with the government to modernize all of the country’s regional hospital laboratories.
"With these new programmes and the ongoing support of Abbott and Abbott Fund, we are improving our ability to provide basic healthcare for our people in every town and villages across the country", he added.