The government of Botswana will be extending free HIV treatment to foreign residents, it announced on Tuesday.
An estimated 30,000 foreign residents are currently living with HIV in Botswana — and more than 75% of them don’t currently have access to treatment, according to the UN, mostly due to financial barriers.
Following the announcement, the Ministry of Health and Wellness is set to issue a special authorization that will permit health facilities to provide treatment to all people in Botswana who live with HIV.
The country already provides free antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to citizens living with HIV and, in 2016, became the first country in the region to do this.
The government of Botswana consulted with UNAIDS and other development agencies when developing the policy.
UNAIDS ad interim Executive Director Gunilla Carlsson applauded the decision, saying it exemplifies an inclusive approach to tackling HIV.
“This measure will save lives and help the entire country progress towards ending the AIDS epidemic,” she said.
Giving migrants free access to HIV treatment will change the lives of people like Mary Banada, a Zambian who is an HIV positive sex worker living in Botswana. She can’t afford antiretroviral drugs and is unable to travel to Zambia for treatment.
“Some of us are dying here,” she told VOA, recalling several people — non-citizens in Botswana — that she’s known who have died due to a lack of treatment for AIDS-related illnesses.
This move continues to demonstrate Botswana’s commitment in tackling the AIDS epidemic.
It has the fourth highest HIV prevalence in the world, with one in every five people between the ages of 15 and 49 testing positive for the virus — a total of 370,000 people, according to the HIV-related educational nonprofit Avert.
Adult women are disproportionately affected, with an HIV prevalence rate of 26.3% compared to 17.6% for men.
23.3 million people living with HIV had access to treatment in 2018.— UNAIDS (@UNAIDS) September 24, 2019
14.6 million did not.
All people living with or affected by HIV must have access to the HIV services and support they need. https://t.co/upZXaEGiVC#GlobalGoals#UNGApic.twitter.com/fSeqBeg5aG
The 2016 policy to provide all citizens with free ARVs has proved effective in reducing AIDS-related deaths in the country, which have decreased by a third since 2010.
Efforts to reduce HIV infections and provide treatment to people with the virus are hampered, however, by a low testing rate and low levels of HIV knowledge. In 2016, only 85% of people living with HIV knew their status, according to Avert.
According to UNAIDS, globally, over 23 million people living with HIV had access to treatment in 2018, while nearly 15 million people did not.
In order to end the AIDS epidemic, people living with HIV need access to treatment, regardless of their citizenship, socioeconomic status, or other factors.
This decision by Botswana will help decrease this treatment gap and abides by a core principle of the Sustainable Development Goals, which is that no one should be left behind.
Lack of universal health coverage, including sexual and reproductive health services, prohibits people from accessing HIV prevention and treatment.
That is set to change as, earlier this week, member states of the UN committed to Universal Health Coverage by 2030. As countries roll out their plans, an HIV-sensitive approach is needed to achieve the end of AIDS by the 2030 target.