About a year ago, I remember meeting UNICEF Representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ms. Barbara Bentein, who had interrupted her annual leave to meet me. The purpose of the meeting was to explore how UNICEF could support DRC to embark on the provision of life long AntiRetroviral (ARV) treatment to HIV positive pregnant women – Option B+ – as part of the Preventing Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) program.
Option B+ is a new approach which offers the possibility to pregnant women and their spouses living with HIV to start antiretroviral therapy with one pill a day. It also provides better pediatric support to children of HIV positive mothers.
Being in Lubumbashi to witness the materialization of Option B+ in DRC was one of those moments of pride that one gets to experience working for UNICEF and seeing that our work contributes to addressing the needs of children and women.
From the presentations on the Option B+ project in Katanga and the field visit to Kipushi (Betty Health Center) I noted with satisfaction that in only six months of implementation of the project:
- More pregnant women are being tested for HIV;
- More HIV-positive pregnant women are receiving lifesaving AntiRetroviral Treatment;
- Ownership by the “Medecin Chef de Zone” (Doctor leading a health zone) of the six health districts where the project is implemented. So refreshing to hear them and learn about their efforts attempting to align the different partners working in their districts;
- Ownership by implementing health facilities. It was indeed encouraging to meet and listen to ‘Kim’, the in-charge nurse at Betty Health Center proudly describe the work of her center.
And maybe, most importantly, that Option B+ is being implemented and that it is feasible!
I left DRC with big hopes and expectations that with the lessons learned from the pilot supported by UNICEF (with catalytic funding from Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency – SIDA) and the determination and engagement demonstrated by the government of DRC and its partners, if much-needed funding is availed, DRC is poised to scale Option B+ becoming one of the very first few countries in the West and Central Africa Region to make this lifesaving approach a reality.
The efforts in Katanga Province needs to be consolidated to not only provide services to more women and children, but equally importantly, provide much needed lessons to inform critical aspects necessary to the scale up – such as retention, pediatric diagnostic and treatment, community engagement (especially male partners’ involvement), etc.
The very high acceptance and utilization of HIV services by women at the health facilities in the six districts covered by the project (as it is probably elsewhere in DRC), send us all a very clear message — that we must not once more fail the women and families of DRC who have shown times and times their determination to use health services (and other services for that matter!) when available.
Dr. Claudes Kamenga is the Regional Advisor on HIV/AIDS for UNICEF Regional Office for Western and Central Africa.
Read more from UNICEF DRC on thier blog – Po na Bana.