Feature story

How communities led in the HIV response, saving lives in Eswatini at the peak of a crippling AIDS epidemic

25 April 2024

This story was first published by News24.com

Eswatini is one of the countries which has been most affected by HIV. At the peak of the epidemic in 2015, almost one out of three people were living with HIV. In 1995, when there was no antiretroviral treatment for people living with HIV, 73 000 people were living with HIV. 2400 people died of AIDS that year. Worried about the rising number of infections and deaths, communities of people living with HIV mobilized to press that antiretroviral treatment be made available for people living with HIV.

One of the key campaigners for access was Hannie Dlamini. Dlamini is now 50 years old and has been living with HIV for 32 years, after finding out about his HIV positive status at the age of 18. He was one of the first people in Eswatini to publicly declare his positive HIV status in 1995 at a time when the stigma and misinformation around HIV was rife.

Dlamini rallied together other people living with HIV as well as non-governmental organizations working to end AIDS in Eswatini, to ensure that everyone living with HIV and in need of treatment had access to it. They formed a community-led organization called Swaziland AIDS Support Organization (SASO) as a support group for people living with HIV. SASO also provided healthy living information for people living with HIV.

“When we asked the government [in 2002] for ARVs in Eswatini we did a pilot project with NECHA [National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS], to see if people would use the drugs.” Dlamini says the response was overwhelming, with many people keen to start the lifesaving treatment. “We initially planned to enrol 200 people on treatment but the demand was 630.” said Dlamini.

Today, Eswatini is one of the countries which has achieved the ambitious 95-95-95 targets (95% of people living with HIV who know their HIV status, 95% of people who know that they are living with HIV are on life-saving antiretroviral treatment, and 95% of people who are on treatment are virally suppressed). This achievement has put the country a step closer to ending AIDS as a public health threat, thanks to the work of community-led organizations, authorities and global partners like UNAIDS, the United States President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria who are working with the government and local communities to end AIDS.

Eswatini’s HIV response strategy includes ongoing nationwide testing and treatment campaigns, use of self-testing kits to encourage more people to take up testing at the comfort of their homes, antiretroviral treatment, male circumcision and pre-exposure prophylaxis (medicine to prevent HIV) and other prevention measures. Community organizations such as Kwakha Indvodza are also key in encouraging men to take full responsibility for their wellbeing and reducing toxic masculinity and gender-based violence which are some of the drivers of HIV.

The driving role of communities in Eswatini to end AIDS is acknowledged by the health authorities. According to Dr. Michel Morisho, HIV management specialist at Mbabane Government Hospital, the government “could not have achieved the 95-95-95 without communities.”

Dr. Morisho says as part of the country’s strategy to end AIDS, HIV testing and treatment are part of disease management for every patient who presents at health facilities for any illness. “When people come to the hospital for whatever, or check up, we offer an HIV test to allow them to know their HIV status,” he said. Dr. Morisho added that treatment is important to bring down viral load and is helping people living with HIV to stay healthy. Eswatini is striving to achieve 100-100-100 [in the number of people who know their HIV status, are on treatment and are virally suppressed].” People who are virally suppressed cannot transmit HIV, thus helping in HIV prevention efforts.

Young women living with HIV have also stepped up to fight the spread of HIV in the country, volunteering their time as peer educators to educate young people about HIV and supporting people newly infected to stay on treatment to live healthily and long lives. Ntsiki Shabangu is a 28-year-old young woman living with HIV. She was diagnosed with HIV in 2015, at the age of 19. She opened up about her status in 2017 and is now working with the Eswatini Network of Young Positives, a local non-governmental organisation working to end AIDS among young people providing counselling and HIV awareness training . Ntsiki believes that: “When you share your story, you bring hope to young people.”

While Eswatini is on the path to end AIDS, the country is facing other health burdens associated with aging, including non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cancer. People living with HIV are not often more affected by these illnesses. Some people living with HIV in Eswatini have developed these comorbidities, which presents the need for the strengthening of the healthcare system to provide easily accessible holistic disease management and treatment along with HIV services to improve the quality of life for people living with HIV. As Thembi Nkambule, a woman who has been on HIV treatment for more than 20 years said: “Most of us are sick. Most of us are presenting with kidney issues. We are presenting with hypertension; we are presenting with sugar diabetes. We have a lot of issues.”

To protect the gains that have been made against HIV in Eswatini, the government should invest more resources in building a resilient healthcare infrastructure to strengthen the system to better meet the health needs of people living with HIV and to prepare for future pandemics. Community-led organisations should also be placed at the centre of HIV response and supported, both financially and politically, to reach more people who need HIV services to end the epidemic by 2030 as a public health threat.