Feature story

Liberia’s catch-up plan takes shape

27 March 2019

The HIV epidemic continues to have a profound humanitarian and public health impact in western and central Africa, a region that risks being left behind in the global response to ending the AIDS epidemic. In July 2017, the African Union endorsed a regional catch-up plan for western and central Africa that seeks to rapidly accelerate access to HIV treatment and close the gap between African regions. National catch-up plans have been established in 18 countries in western and central Africa, including in Liberia.

It is estimated that in 2017, 40 000 people were living with HIV in Liberia, including around 3000 children aged 0–14 years. Fewer than one in three adults aged 15–49 years who are living with HIV have access to medicines that would keep them well and stop them passing on the virus to other people. For children, the situation is even more challenging, with just 18% on treatment.

However, there are encouraging signs that Liberia is scaling up its response to the HIV epidemic and adopting best practice programmes and policies to ensure the delivery and take-up of HIV testing, treatment and prevention services. Under the leadership of the Ministry of Health and the National AIDS Commission of Liberia, a Fast-Track plan for 2019–2020 has been developed that identifies high-impact programmes to accelerate the response, the urgent need for adjustments to existing programmes and barriers that must be removed in order to ensure better service delivery. It also recognizes that prevention measures must be reinforced and that stigma and discrimination associated with the virus must be reduced.

The Liberia catch-up plan seeks to triple the country’s test and treat figures, whereby people who test positive for HIV are immediately referred for treatment. The catch-up plan is guided by a location–population approach, with a service delivery bias towards the three counties with the highest unmet need for HIV testing, treatment and care services, urban areas and some other locations. Services are oriented towards adults aged 15–49 years, especially to pregnant women and to groups at higher risk, such as gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers, people who inject drugs, prisoners and mine workers. Infants exposed to the virus during pregnancy and breastfeeding are also a priority.

The plan also aims to tackle the low take-up of services by men.   

“We are designing interventions that will encourage more men to test and know their status. Of those tested so far, 80% are women,” said the National AIDS Commission of Liberia Chair, Theodosia Kolle. “Stigma remains a major issue in Liberia.”

UNAIDS played a significant role in helping to draft the catch-up plan, mobilizing stakeholder involvement and ensuring that people living with HIV, civil society and members of key populations were included in order to shape its design. Around 70 people took part in a special two-day workshop in March to craft the necessary political and programmatic measures to improve service delivery, enhance community mobilization, increase funding and enable a more efficient use of existing resources and an improved monitoring and evaluation system.

The workshop was also an opportunity to validate the Global AIDS Monitoring (GAM) report for 2019 for Liberia. GAM is the world’s most extensive data collection on HIV epidemiology, programme coverage and finance and publishes the most authoritative and up-to-date information on the HIV epidemic—vital for an effective AIDS response.

“With teamwork we can reach the 2020 Fast-Track Targets as long as we prioritize and implement high-impact programmes,” said Miriam Chipimo, UNAIDS Country Director for Liberia.

The 90–90–90 targets included in the Fast-Track approach are that, by 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their status, 90% of all people living with HIV will have access to antiretroviral therapy and 90% of all people on antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.