Need for Accurate HIV/AIDS Data

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The recent launch of a national HIV/AIDS survey by the federal government highlights the critical role of reliable data in the fight against the virus. Paul Obi reports

For nearly two decades, Nigeria has been grappling with the dreaded HIV/AIDS virus. It has launched an ambitious plan to combat the virus. But that effort has been hampered by lack of accurate and reliable data. The lack of reliable data has led to haphazard application of the prevention and treatment methods, at enormous cost to the government.

One of the greatest challenges confronting the country’s policies in the fight against HIV/AIDS has been the inability to track the disease. And this challenge comes in many phases. First, apart from nursing mothers and new born babies, many persons with the virus are not tracked for testing. Therefore, treatment and prevention are affected in the long run, which in turn increases the burden of the disease on individuals and the nation at large.

The consequences of such gaps brought about by lack of accurate data have undoubtedly had a spiral effect on the country’s public health sector and by extension, the economy. The lack of data has the potential of derailing the support services needed by persons living with the virus. Given Nigeria’s status as the country with the second highest rate in the world, after South Africa, the need for up-to-date and accurate data on HIV/AIDS is imperative.

Survey

It was in the search for accurate data on HIV/AIDS that stakeholders in the health sector pushed for the conduct of a National HIV/AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey (NAIIS). It is believed that with scientific approach and dependable data, Nigeria would have expanded its frontiers in the fight against HIV/AIDS and probably moved closer to completely eradicating the virus that has affected nearly three million people in Africa’s most populous nation.

Launching the NAIIS programme in Abuja, President Muhammadu Buhari explained that NAIIS is capable of reliably estimating the current status and spread of HIV, Hepatitis B and C in the 36 states of the federation and FCT. The president explained that government was committed to investing huge resources to combat HIV/AIDS in order to eradicate the disease. He added that “despite spending these resources, coverage and access to persons living with HIV remains a challenge, leading to wastage of HIV commodities. The importance of accurate data on HIV is very crucial for sustainable solutions on HIV/AIDS. The lack of data on the epidemic has also compounded the country’s ability to compete for HIV global grants’.

Also, Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr Boss Mustapha, stated that though Nigeria had made progress in generating data for planning and policy making, multi-sectoral response to health challenges, particularly, HIV/AIDS is very important to addressing the problems.

Speaking, Minister of State for Health, Dr Osagie Enahire, explained that the launch of NAIIS by the president marked the beginning of work in redefining the real status of HIV/AIDS, which requires scientific survey to achieve.

U.S. Backing

With United States contributing about $1.03 billion for the survey, the collaboration is expected to ensure credible outcomes that will reset how Nigeria fights the virus.

Speaking on his government’s support, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Stuart Syminton, charged the government to improve its role by scaling up its prevention and treatment programmes for HIV/AIDS virus. Syminton explained that given the advancement in technology, there was no reason for anyone to die from the virus.

NACA’s Position

According to the Director General of National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), Dr Sani Aliyu, the launch of NAIIS is a landmark achievement. Aliyu said, “Today we made history as we embarked on what is likely to be the largest population-based HIV and Hepatitis survey in the world.”

He added, “There is no doubt we have a HIV problem in Nigeria. We have the second largest HIV burden in the world with about 3.2million people living with the virus. We estimated that about 600 Nigerians are infected with HIV and about 400 Nigerians die from this infection daily. Almost two-thirds of all new HIV infections in West and Central Africa occurred in Nigeria in 2016.”

Aliyu also stated that Nigeria “contributes to the largest number of HIV-infected babies in the world. One in every four babies born with HIV in the world in 2016 was a Nigerian child. These worrying statistics have been with us for the last 10 years with very little variation even though our efforts in terms of commitment and resources have intensified over the years. The number of persons on life saving medications has increased from about 100,000 to just over a million and the number of hospitals providing HIV/AIDS treatment sites has increased more than 10-fold, yet the epidemic burden has remained the same.”

The NACA DG said, “Perhaps, this is the more reason why we need to have more precise estimates not only to determine the epidemic burden but measure the impact of our current interventions in order to plan more effectively, especially in this era of huge budget cuts and uncertain donor resources. This why the NAIIS has becomes essential. This survey will help: determine the number and location of people living with HIV in Nigeria with a better degree of precision in order to prioritize resources to where they are needed most; track the coverage and impact of current HIV services and efforts in the country and estimate the level of viral suppression and drug resistance among persons taking HIV medications”.

On her part, Chairperson of NACA board, Mrs Pauline Tallen, said with the launch of NAIIS, government was “taking a major step in doing the right thing – committing ourselves to finding out where HIV is hiding in our country.”

Tallen said, “The NAIIS indicator survey we launched today will conclusively provide us with more precise estimates of the number of people living with the virus, the number of new infections and where they are. This is crucial to developing a long-term strategy for fighting this infection.

“Without knowing our country’s HIV data, trusting the data and working with the data, we cannot adequately plan the country’s HIV response. Without adequate planning, we certainly cannot fight HIV effectively.”

UNAIDS

However, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Country Director to Nigeria, Dr Eramus Morah, thinks Nigeria is not doing enough to own up the treatment of HIV/AIDS, considering that about 80 per cent of the funding still comes from foreign donors, like the U.S. government. Morah stressed that though the decision to launch NAIIS “marked the first major step to ensure that Nigeria owns and sustain its national HIV response going forward, our concern is that the noble decision is not being matched by the requisite financial resources to make it a reality”.

Advising Buhari on the necessary steps to take, Morah said, “The United Nations, therefore, prays that you consider intervening, through special interventions budget, to increase the funds allocated to HIV treatment this financial year from 1.5 billion naira to the required 7.5 billion naira (an additional N6 billion).

“This way, the commitment you made at UN high-level meeting will become a reality and translate to saving lives and upholding the dignity of people living with HIV in Nigeria. This would also help to give a glimmer of hope to the development partners, the Americans in particular, that they would not have to forever be the primary financier for treating Nigerians who are living with HIV.”

Implementation

NACA said it had trained fieldworkers who were ready to be mobilised to start data collection. The survey, according to officials, will take about four weeks in each state. This will likewise take six months to complete as only six states would participate at a time.

With the report of the survey expected early next year, much is in the offing for Nigeria with regards to ending the world’s second highest burden of HIV/AIDS.

NAIIS offers Nigeria the opportunity to set the record straight on its HIV/AIDS status. Poor or near lack of reliable data has seemed to render most of the works and projections on HIV/AIDS in the country ineffective.

Experts believe a more accurate data on the virus will help to change the current guess-work on HIV/AIDS programmes and enact a more effective and scientific approach to curtailing the scourge.