Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says only 20 percent of people living with HIV in French-speaking west and central Africa are receiving the antiretroviral drug treatment they need. This is despite "enormous progress" made in the fight against HIV/AIDS in southern Africa, where the disease is more prevalent.
MSF says governments and aid agencies need to do more to help those living with HIV in West and Central Africa.
According to the group, despite a relatively low prevalence of HIV in the region, less than five percent of the population, only a fifth of HIV patients who need antiretroviral treatment (ART) receive it. Countless others die before they are diagnosed due to a lack of access to testing.
In southern African countries, such as Malawi, an estimated 66 percent of people living with HIV have access to ART.
Dr. David Maman is an HIV specialist with MSF. He spoke to VOA from Montpellier, France, where experts are meeting this week to discuss strategies to improve HIV testing and care in Francophone Africa.
“In some parts of Africa, like western Africa, you have very few physicians," Maman said. "And in some countries, only physicians are allowed to prescribe ARTs ... So we do not get the same rate of ART coverage that we can get in eastern and southern Africa where the outcomes so far are a bit better.”
Maman said that training less qualified health workers, such as nurses, to administer ART has been a successful strategy in other African countries, particularly in rural settings.
He said allowing non-physicians to test for and treat HIV not only reaches more people, but frees doctors up for other, more complicated cases.
Another challenge in west and central Africa is that HIV testing and treatment is not usually included in regular health care services. Patients must go to specialized clinics, usually in big cities.
“If someone comes to a clinic and he has a sign of infection that he has HIV, he must tested and if possible initiated [into treatment] where he lives, so that he does not have to go hundreds of kilometers or wait for the doctor to be present in the district. So it is very important this issue of integration of care,” said Maman.
Maman says having free, nearby access to testing and ART is a proven way of reducing HIV transmission.
In Malawi for example, a 2013 MSF-led study found that they were able to reduce the HIV transmission rate to less than half a percent in selected communities by decentralizing treatment centers and incorporating HIV-care into rural clinics.
Maman said that similar strategies are also possible in west and central Africa. But it will take strong political will and significant financial resources.