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Antiretroviral Treatment in Ghana: HIV/AIDS not ‘death sentence’ anymore

Ghana diagnosed its first Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) case in March 1986 and by May 1986, 26 cases had been identified.

Since then, the country has experienced a generalised Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) epidemic with a current prevalence rate of 1.7 in the general population.

The prevalence rate, however, is much higher among key populations, particularly female sex workers representing 3.5 per cent of county’s population and 26 per cent representing men, who have sex with their fellow men.

The HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. The disease, if not treated can lead to AIDS and there is no effective cure for HIV, once people get the Virus, they live with it forever.

In the past, the HIV disease was a ‘death sentence’ when there was no Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) for the disease. People, who were affected by the virus fell ill, got bed ridden, suffered in severe pain, and eventually died.

In 1986, Ghana was fraught with fear, uncertainty, and loss as the HIV/AIDS p
andemic continued to ravage communities across the globe.

The stigma attached to the condition compelled many people not to avail themselves for counselling and care, so many people died without knowing the cause of death and a lot of lives have been lost to that effect.

The HIV is no respecter of persons as many individuals including health professionals have been affected in line of duty, caregivers and close relations have also been affected by the disease.

To this effect, the country had lost many individuals to the virus and is still counting.

Families have been devastated by the turn of events.

Madam Beatrice Sena (not her real name) lost a family member to the disease 25 years ago. The deceased could have been saved if the ART were available at that time.

She said: ‘I watched my cousin die when there was virtually nothing we could about it. He was looking on with unbearable pain and grew very lean with continuous pain until the worse happened.’

Due to technological advancement and numerous resea
rch, ART was introduced globally, and countries including Ghana adopted the strategy.

In December 2003, Ghana began the ARTs for HIV positive persons to undergo care and treatment.

The ART is a combination of antiviral drugs that effectively suppress the replication of HIV in the body. By doing so, it delays the progression of the disease and allows persons living with HIV to live healthier and longer lives.

The ART does not only improve the quality of life for individuals, but it also reduces the risk of transmitting the virus to others and serves as a powerful tool that contributes to individual and public health.

Prior to the initiation of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) 20 years ago, (December 2003), care for persons living with HIV (PLHIV) was focused on managing opportunistic infections and providing psychosocial support resulting in the HIV infection being seen as a ‘death sentence.’

The treatment had saved many lives and had made a positive impact on countless lives that might have b
een lost without the ART.

The advent of HAART has transformed care, reduced morbidity and mortality and improved the quality of life of PLHIVs from the initial three facilities in 2003, to the current 735 ARTs sites and over 6000 Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMCT) sites.

In the same vein, from an initial cohort of 100 PLHIV initiated on HAART in 2003, there are 254,753 persons currently on treatment.

Twenty years down the lane, the landscape of HIV/AIDS care underwent a remarkable transformation with the introduction of antiretroviral therapy in Ghana.

In line with the UNAIDS ?95-95-95? targets, 254,753 (72 per cent) of the estimated PLHIV know their status, 222,581 (83 per cent) are on ARTs and 151,549 (68 per cent) have achieved viral suppression. ?

In view of the lifesaving treatment which has helped many PLHIVs, a number of Associations have been created among themselves and they are empowered to boldly come out and speak to the public.

Sharing her story, Ms Elsie Ayeh, President of N
ational Association of Persons Living with HIV (NAP+ Ghana), said she had been on the ARTs treatment for the past 20 years.

Ms Ayeh confirmed that the treatment had been a life saver over the years, and, however, stated that despite the efficacy and assurance of the ARTs by health professionals, many HIV positive persons refused to be on treatment and have lost their lives.

‘Many lives have been lost, lessons have been learnt and many lives have been saved throughout the period. I have been on the ART for the past 20 years and still counting. I am 70 years of age, and I am proudly looking healthier and stronger,’ Ms Ayeh added.

She encouraged every individual to get tested and know their status, in line with the UNAIDS ?95-95-95? target. ?

As of December 2022, the number of new HIV infections that occurred in Ghana was 16,574 and the number of AIDS-related deaths recorded in the same year was 9,359, according to Ghana AIDS Commission and National AIDS/STI Control Programme.

Dr Patrick Kuma-Aboagye, Direc
tor General, Ghana Health Service (GHS) was happy to note that Ghana had made significant strides in the provision and accessibility of ARV, while the government in collaboration with international organisations and healthcare providers had undertaken commendable efforts in expanding the coverage of ARV.

He said more Ghanaians living with HIV have access to these life-saving drugs than ever before, adding that the government had established treatment centres across the nation, ensuring that individuals have a place to seek care and access ARVs.

‘The achievements we have made in Ghana are truly remarkable, not only have we increased the number of people accessing and adhering to ARV, but we have also witnessed a decline in HIV -related mortality rates.

This means that more Ghanaians are living longer, healthier lives with HIV. Moreover, the rate of new HIV infections has been declining, thanks to the combination of ARV with comprehensive prevention strategies.’ Dr Kuma-Aboagye added.

The Director General n
oted that the achievements were a testament to the commitment and collaborative effort of the government, healthcare professionals, civil society organisations and the citizenry.

However, our journey does not end here, there is still much work to be done. Despite our achievement, there are challenges we must address to ensure the ultimate success of our fight against HIV.

Stigma and discrimination towards individuals living with HIV persisted and acted are formidable barriers to testing, treatment and adherence to ARV.

Dr Franklin Asiedu Bekoe, Director of Public Health, (GHS) recognized that achievement, while acknowledging the tireless efforts of researchers, scientists, healthcare professionals and advocates, who had worked diligently to achieve the significant milestone.

He noted that the pandemic had revolutionised the field, providing hope, extending lives, and improving quality of life for those living with the devastating disease.

‘As we commemorate this 20th Anniversary, let us not lose sight of
the challenges ahead. While tremendous progress has been made, we cannot rest until every person, regardless of their socio-economic status or geographical location has access to life-saving antiretroviral therapy,’ Dr Asiedu Bekoe added.

The Public Health Director said it was important to continue to tackle stigma, discrimination, and inequality, while ensuring that the benefits of innovation reach those, who needed them the most.

‘We must renew our commitment to eradicating HIV/AIDS once and for all; let us be inspired by the progress we have made and let it serve as a reminder that together, we are capable of overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges,’ he said.

Source: Ghana News Agency