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The Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) has issued a call to action for all Rwandans, urging them to prioritise HIV/AIDS prevention through testing and safety measures. The appeal was made at the start of a 10-day nationwide campaign, mostly aimed at the youth, held in Rwamagana District, Eastern Province, on May 8 to raise awareness, encourage HIV testing, and take precautionary measures early on.

According to figures from RBC’s 2022–2023 HIV/AIDS annual report, as of June 2023, all national health facilities provided index testing and partner notification services. The positivity yield among contact categories which included family testing, sexual partners, and social networks registered a notable decrease from 11.7 per cent to 7.1 per cent among social networks, 5.3 to 3.7 among sexual partners, and a 0.3 per cent decrease from 1.1 to 0.8 per cent amongst family testing.

Nusra Iribagiza, 21, from Kigabiro Sector, Rwamagana District, mentioned that the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS among youth is due to inadequate sex education in schools and communities.

She said: “Most of the youth are in school, but they are not properly educated on safe sex practices and the risks of unprotected sex. This leads to a lack of awareness and understanding about HIV/AIDS, making them more vulnerable. Also, there is a need to break the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, I have friends who are afraid of testing because of the fear of being judged and discriminated against if they are found to be HIV positive.”

RBC’s report indicates that changes in recent infection hotspots have been observed over the last three years, with a higher number of recent infections increasing in the Eastern Province, while in other provinces, the number decreases or remains the same.

From July 2022 to June 2023, 2,072,366 HIV tests were performed nationwide, with an overall positivity rate of 0.7 per cent.

HIV testing services carried out during this period were also provided to pregnant women and their partners with unknown or negative HIV status at their first antenatal care visit.

The data showed that 389,531 pregnant women attended their initial antenatal care appointment, 365,759 tested for HIV, and 5,558 were confirmed HIV positive.

The HIV prevalence among pregnant women attending antenatal care visits dropped from 2.78 per cent to 1.8 per cent, and the proportion of newly HIV-diagnosed pregnant women in antenatal care declined from 29.7% in 2015-16 to 20.4% in 2022-2023, according to the report.

According to Dr Basil Ikuzo, Director of the HIV Prevention Unit at RBC, testing and safety precautions are the first steps to curbing HIV/AIDS prevalence. He emphasised the importance of early detection and treatment in reducing the spread of HIV, as well as the need for continued education and awareness campaigns.

He said: “Currently, we stand at 100 per cent of testing at health centres; we are now putting more emphasis on training health service providers, specifically for the youth. Youth need specific attention for HIV/AIDS awareness, and a campaign like this is aimed at addressing such issues. We are also in discussions with the Ministry of Education to include HIV/AIDS awareness education lessons in the curriculum so that safety and prevention targets begin early on.”

RBC’s HIV Annual Report 2022-2023 indicated that the highest number of cases of recent HIV infection were observed in Eastern Province prompting program responses such as awareness campaigns in identified hotspots. Overall 219,000 people living with HIV are on ART, they include children, and adult HIV/AIDS patients.

The report also indicates that to increase testing efforts, 84,047 HIV Self-test kits were distributed within 584 health facilities across the country in 2022-2023 fiscal year, and 28,717 at the community level by peer educators. While from July 2022 to June 2023, 112,764 HIV self-test kits were distributed across the country.

Dr Placide Nshizirungu, Director of Rwamagana Hospital, highlighted the timeliness of the campaign, given the rising trend of HIV infections among youth.

He said: “We need to continue raising awareness and promoting preventive measures to curb the spread of HIV among this vulnerable demographic. We must provide access to testing and treatment services and ensure that the health centres can provide these services to young people by the end of this year.”

With 9,280 individuals currently on antiretroviral therapy (ART) in Rwamagana District, Nshizirungu emphasised the campaign’s potential to empower youth with vital AIDS-related information.

Ernest Munyandekwe, 23, a resident of Rwamagana, had never tested for HIV before. He said he was grateful for the opportunity to finally get tested during the campaign, emphasising that he now knows what to do after receiving his results.

“Knowing my HIV status has taken away the fear and uncertainty I’ve been carrying for so long. I can now take the necessary steps to protect myself and my loved ones. I recommend that my friends avoid social connections because they can easily spread HIV/AIDS.”

Rwanda has been internationally recognised for its effective response to HIV epidemic control. According to the UNAIDS Global Report 2023, released in July 2023, Rwanda was ranked as one of five African countries that achieved the 95-95-95 targets, with an estimated 95 per cent of people living with HIV aware of their status, 97.5 per cent receiving antiretroviral therapy, and 98 per cent achieving viral load suppression, putting the country on a path that will end HIV/AIDS by 2030. These achievements demonstrate Rwanda’s dedication to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic and improving the quality of life for the infected and affected population.

Access to antiretroviral therapy, regular testing, and viral load suppression are key components in Rwanda’s successful response to the HIV epidemic. With its proactive approach to public health, RBC urges individuals to continue to prioritise their health and adhere to their treatment plans, while also calling on the youth to get tested regularly, practice safe sex, and stay informed to achieve Rwanda’s goal of an AIDS-free generation.

HIV prevalence decreased from 3.0% (RDHS-2015) to 2,6% (RPHIA-2019) among the general population aged between 15-49 years old and remains at 3% among the population aged between 15-64 years old.

The campaign will reach Rwamagana, Kayonza, Gatsibo, Ngoma, Kirehe, Nyagatare, and the City of Kigali.

Emmanuel Nkangura, The New Times
young people, HIV prevention, HIV testing