Southern Africa: SADC Considers Universal HIV Testing

Lilongwe — Several leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), speaking at the organisation’s weekend summit in Lilongwe, called on member states to adopt the principle of universal testing for HIV, rather than leaving it up to each citizen to decide whether to take an HIV test or not.

Among those who called for universal testing were the Presidents of Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Robert Mugabe and Joseph Kabila, and the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

They argued that the AIDS pandemic is such a serious public health threat, that it is no longer an option to allow people to decide for themselves whether they will be tested, and whether they will be treated if they turn out to be HIV-positive.

Mugabe said he could not understand why citizens should be free to take or not take the test, or to submit themselves to treatment or not, when it is the obligation of governments and of public health services to ensure the good health of all citizens. This involves prevention, timely diagnosis and the treatment of all diseases.

Mugabe said it was time to move away from voluntary tests to universal ones, since the disease is spread from person to person, and to deal with it efficiently, all the carriers of HIV should be treated, lest they involuntarily pass the lethal virus on to others.

He compared HIV testing to the mass vaccinations that eradicated smallpox and are on the way to eradicating polio. He lamented that now human rights and privacy are invoked to allow millions of people to be destroyed by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, simply because it is thought that this disease has facets that make it different from other illnesses.

Mugabe recalled that, when he was a young man, it was common to see health teams undertaking vaccination campaigns – but, strangely enough, it is left up to the victims of HIV to decide on testing and treatment. As a result, many discover that they are carrying the virus when it is too late for effective treatment. And by that time, they may well have infected many other people.

In general there was a consensus at the summit that the best way to combat the spread of HIV would be for all citizens of each country to be tested in HIV testing campaign, just as there are campaigns against other diseases.

But some SADC leaders were skeptical. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete asked whether universal testing was practicable, given the costs involved. He thought it would be a monumental task to test all 45 million Tanzanians.

But incoming SADC chairperson, Malawian President Joyce Banda, said the question of resources should be dealt with separately from the principle of universal testing. She said that while some countries might be able to embark on universal testing immediately, others would have to make an effort to obtain the necessary resources.

Dlamini-Zuma said that HIV/AIDS should be treated like any other disease, rather than leaving it up to each individual to decide whether to be tested.

As for the decline in donor funds for the fight against AIDS, Mugabe said the Zimbabwean government had dealt with this problem through a levy on both workers and companies to build up a fund that is more or less sufficient to finance all HIV testing and treatment operations.