Health Minister Motlatsi Maqelepo says HIV and AIDS remain Lesotho’s biggest health crises and the situation has just been exacerbated by Covid-19 lockdown.
The government enforced a national lockdown in March this year to curb the spread of Covid-19. During the lockdown, which only ended on 5 May 2020, the government-imposed travel restrictions which deterred HIV and AIDS patients from seeking medical attention fearing Covid-19.
Mr Maqelepo told parliament on Monday that his ministry has embarked on a Covid-19 impact assessment on HIV treatment during the national lockdown and “the numbers are worrying”.
Although he could not immediately provide the figures, Mr Maqelepo said a detailed report would soon be released.
“HIV still needs our undivided attention,” Mr Maqelepo said adding: “It remains the biggest threat in this country”.
“The numbers of new infections and HIV related deaths are worrying. The Ministry of Health has identified challenges during the Covid-19 lockdown where people on HIV treatment did not have adequate supply of medication. Many people did not go for their regular check-ups to get medication supplies for fear of getting infected with Covid-19 while visiting health centres. This has badly affected adherence.”
The lockdown had an even worse impact on Basotho patients who are based in neighbouring South Africa due to travel restrictions. Many ran out of medication but could not refill, he said.
“We had arranged for borderless health services with South Africa but most Basotho did not like the type of anti-retrovirals (ARVs) that South Africa was dispensing because they were different from what they got ack home.
“The results of the impact assessment will be released soon and remedial action will be determined to get us back on track. Lesotho has done tremendous work so far with regards to finding new infections but we must work even harder for zero infections by 2030,” Mr Maqelepo said.
Mr Maqelepo said his ministry would double its efforts towards curbing new HIV infections adding that village health workers will be capacitated to motivate them to help the government in distributing medication and encouraging adherence to treatment.
He bemoaned the lack of organisation among the many international health partners that support the ministry in fighting HIV, expressing fears that if not well coordinated, their efforts could be in vain.
“We have many international partners but they work in silos and we therefore, run the risk of duplicating efforts. They must be well coordinated for better results. So, we wish to capacitate the National AIDS Commission (NAC) to do the coordination. The NAC needs adequate financing for that.
“I want to bring some positive results in the fight against HIV during my tenure. Lesotho must graduate from its position as the country with the second highest HIV prevalence in the world. I will lobby men in their different formations to go and get tested and know their status. We will support the NAC so that it can coordinate us… If Botswana did it, we too can do it,” Mr Maqelepo said.
According to a report by the HIV and AIDS committee, although HIV testing was carried out in some health centres, it was compromised by the lockdown and the industrial action by health workers.
The NAC reported that HIV testing in many outreach health centres was affected by Covid-19 lockdowns and eventually came to a halt. Although self-testing kits were distributed, the demand was high.
The launching of the multi-month dispensing strategy was greatly beneficial as people living with HIV started getting three to six months’ supply of ARVs at one go. This helped them avoid long queues which would compromise social distancing.
On the other hand, antenatal care was only affected in April but picked up in May. The same trend was observed for pregnant women at antenatal care units. There was however, no clear trends of Covid-19 impact on early infant testing.