The HIV epidemic is spreading unchecked in many parts of South Sudan in spite of huge investments by international aid donors, according to a leading medical organization.
War, a largely collapsed government health system, and inadequacies in the massive donor-supported non-governmental health sector mean that many HIV-positive people go without treatment.
“The conflict has disrupted people’s lives. Many who previously lived closer to the roads, have moved deeper into the forest to escape the fighting,” says John Augusto, a teacher and community liaison worker with Medecins Sans Franieres (MSF), also called Doctors Without Borders.
Arkangelo Ruben, Bodo community leader in Western Equatoria, says, “HIV is a big challenge for the community. If a person is positive or doesn’t get tested, that person will die. I believe that many people are positive, but they do not know it.”
“Fighting has caused people to flee from their homes, and as they fled, some had no treatment,” he adds.
MSF is running a pilot project in Yambio County to provide antiretroviral therapy in isolated locations, including areas where people have been dispalced by conflict. In many other areas, however, the government has prevented aid groups from reaching vulnerable populations, leaving HIV-positive people without treatment.
“For many people in rural South Sudan, HIV testing and antiretroviral therapy (ART) is nearly impossible to obtain. Moving from village to village is extremely difficult, and the war has forced many to flee to isolated locations. But in Yambio County, in the southwest, things are different as a pilot project is providing care to many people living with HIV,” the aid group MSF explained in a press statement dated November 30th.
The programs works through mobile same-day testing and treatment. Catholic Medical Mission Board is working alongside MSF as the group’s local partner.
MSF says between June 2015 and the start of November 2017, 14,804 people were tested for HIV in Yambio County, of which 505 tested positive and 401 were enrolled in the programme.
“The majority those not in the programme decided not to participate despite counselling,” MSF explains.
Jaume Rado, MSF head of mission in South Sudan, says that aid workers want to learn from the experience in Yambio to apply lessons to programs needed elsewhere in the country where people may not be getting the testing and treatment that they need.
“With the Yambio areas covered by our project, the next move is to pass on what we have learned from the pilot programme to other health providers… Many other communities that have been affected by instability and many displaced people can benefit from what we have developed,” she says.
Related coverage: Why South Sudan’s HIV epidemic is set to worsen (external link)