The Malawi Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS, MANERELA, is calling for a speedy approval of a biomedical intervention that prevents a person from contracting HIV called PrEP.
The Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), is a form of an antiretroviral drug (ARV) but is consumed by HIV negative persons to prevent them from getting infected with the virus.
If taken on a daily basis, PrEP is highly effective for HIV prevention and medical practitioners advise that it is supposed to be taken together with other contraceptives as it does not protect one from Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) or pregnancy.
PrEP is prescribed to anyone who has sex with a partner that is HIV positive, anyone who has unprotected sex with a partner whose status is unknown and those who share injection drugs or tattoo needles.
Project Coordinator at MANERELA, Chisomo Chaweza, tells Capital FM that the Constitution under the bill of rights, mandates Malawi to make accessible health services to its people.
The delay in approving the guidelines according to Chaweza, directly delays the rollout of PrEP, an intervention that other African countries such as Kenya, eSwatini and South Africa are already implementing at a larger scale to achieve the goal of eliminating HIV/AIDS by 2030.
“A speedy approval of PrEP guidelines will help protect a lot of lives and this is especially important now, as we are faced with covid-19, another pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives. Access to HIV prevention services is a human rights issue,’’ Chaweza explains.
The Malawi National Strategic Plan for HIV and AIDS 2020-2025 estimates that in 2019, new infections in the country reached 33,000, a figure that pushing advocates to call for a speedy roll out of the drug.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99 percent.
In Malawi, PrEP was provided to HIV-negative people as part of a clinical trial in two districts of Lilongwe and Blantyre. In Lilongwe, the study was implemented by Lighthouse Trust, which targeted adolescent girls and young women. In Blantyre, the study was led by Pakachere Institute for Health Development and Communication and the study participants comprised female sex workers. As it stands, PrEP has not been rolled out nationwide.
A sex worker who opted for anonymity and chose to be addressed as Martha in this story, was part of the Lilongwe clinical trial in Kawale and has been a regular user of the drug. She speaks highly of its effectiveness.
“I was introduced to this drug last year and I was part of a study to find out if the drug really works. So first of all, they tested my HIV status to find out if I was negative then, I was given the drug and instructions that I should follow.
“During the first week of taking the drug, I experienced some side effects like nausea, vomiting, headache and I later went to the hospital hospital where I was told that the experiences were normal,” explains Martha.
She further highlights that she was taking the pill each and every day while doing my usual work of being a sexworker every night with different men, sometimes without protection. Martha continues by narrating that when time came for her to get tested again if the drug really worked, she tested negative, proving that the drug worked.
Martha has been taking PrEP ever since because she has a higher risk of getting HIV with the work she does.
She says; “I have been taking the pill every day to protect myself from the virus”
The National Taskforce on PrEP, which was established with a mandate to provide strategic direction and oversight for the implementation of PrEP in Malawi, completed the tasks assigned through sub-committees. However, the PrEP guidelines are yet to be approved