As we commemorate HIV Voluntary Counseling and Testing Day on June 30, we celebrate how far Zambia has come in the fight against AIDS: the rate of new infections dropped by 58 percent between 2001 and 2011; more than 600,000 people are on anti-retroviral treatment; and more than two million people are counseled and tested annually.
The US government, through the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and partners such as UNAIDS and the Global Fund, is supporting the Government of the Republic of Zambia in our commitment to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Our assistance — direct and indirect — is nearly half a billion dollars a year and since the inception of PEPFAR in 2004, we have given more than $2 billion to combatting HIV/AIDS in Zambia alone.
Together we have made great progress toward an AIDS-free generation in Zambia — but we still have a lot of work to do. According to the recently released Zambia 2013-2014 Demographic and Health Survey, 13.3 percent of Zambians are HIV-positive. This is among the highest prevalence in the world. Zambia accounts for three percent of HIV-positive people on the globe.
To reach UNAIDS’ goal to end AIDS globally by 2030, we are working to achieve ambitious—but attainable—targets by 2020 in Zambia and elsewhere: 90 percent of people living with HIV know their HIV status; 90 percent of people who know their status receive treatment; and 90 percent of people on HIV treatment have suppressed viral load, which means their immune system remains strong and they are no longer infectious.
The US government, through PEPFAR, is working toward this goal by pivoting to focus resources in the Zambian districts with the highest HIV burden and unmet needs and by investing in programmes that will make the most impact. We are working in particular with high-risk groups such as young women and adolescent girls. HIV prevalence among young women aged 20-24 is 11.2 percent, compared to 7.3 percent among young men of the same age. Voluntary counselling and testing are important instruments in the fight against HIV and our goal of an AIDS-free generation.
Two things can propel Zambia toward the end of the HIV epidemic: people knowing their HIV status and reducing the stigma and discrimination that discourage others from knowing their status. Stigma surrounding HIV keeps people away from the testing and treatment services that could save their lives and the lives of others.
HIV is not a mark of shame; it is a virus that we can control. More importantly, it does not have to be a killer. If we do not eliminate stigma, we will not achieve an AIDS-free generation in Zambia.
Thanks to the Zambian government, in partnership with the United States through PEPFAR, UNAIDS, and other donors, HIV counselling and testing services are readily accessible throughout the country. Care and support activities are also available, enabling Zambians who require HIV treatment to live positive, productive lives.
Zambians can best celebrate their country’s success in its HIV response by acting now to find out their HIV status and by encouraging others to do the same. Zambians who don’t know their HIV status or who stigmatise others who do are contributing to the problem. Instead, choose to be part of the solution. Zambia has the potential to be one of the first countries to achieve an AIDS-free generation. But we can only do this if we do it together.
The author is US ambassador to Zambia.