HIS Majesty King Letsie III is today expected to officially launch a new HIV testing device for infants at ‘Manthabiseng Convention Centre in Maseru as the country joins the rest of the world in commemorating World Aids day.
The new point-of-care (POC) machines are miniaturised devices that have the capacity to perform an early infant diagnosis (EID) test at the facility where HIV exposed infants present for care.
The devices provide same-day results and potentially facilitate the same-day treatment; replacing the conventional system where infants of HIV positive mothers would only be tested after 6 weeks.
In many African countries like Lesotho, identifying infants with HIV using the conventional antibody HIV test is a challenge due to the presence of maternal HIV antibodies.
These maternal HIV antibodies may persist for as long as 18 months after delivery in a child’s bloodstream.
HIV infection can only be definitively confirmed in those infants using a virologic test, access to which is limited in many countries, especially outside large cities as currently EID testing in many countries is performed on sophisticated machines operated by highly-trained staff in centralised laboratories.
In Lesotho testing infants born of HIV infected mothers is only available at the National Reference Laboratory in Maseru.
With additional delays at district and central laboratories, the turnaround time from sample collection to return of results to sites (and care-givers) can be as long as 6-8 weeks.
This can result in HIV infected infants not being diagnosed in time, leading to early morbidity and mortality.
The new-to-market, point-of-care technology ensures that infants are screened on-site and receive their test results within two hours so that HIV-positive infants can be rapidly enrolled on lifesaving antiretroviral treatment.
Supported by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation (EGPAF) and UNITAID, Lesotho is among the first nine African countries to use the new life-saving devices in routine clinical settings.
Health Minister ‘Molotsi Monyamane this week toured Mafeteng Government Hospital on Monday to inspect the new machinery ahead of today’s launch by His Majesty.
During the inspection tour, Mafeteng Hospital Director Sechaba Makiti said due to the conventional methods of testing, “the hospital wasted 60.7 days from the time the infant was tested up until they received their results and put on treatment”.
EGPAF acting country director Tšepang Mohlomi said with the new testing methods, her organisation and government would fast-track the turn-around time as they had noted how “lengthy that turn-around time was (for the conventional testing methods) and we know that it has compromised care for the infant in many cases”.
“We are benefitting as Lesotho through a global award which supports a number of countries including Lesotho.
“This is a four-year project which is worth US$3.2 million expensed through Lesotho and that excludes the 29 point of care early infant diagnosis devices that will be delivered in 30 sites in the country,” Ms Mohlomi said.
UNITAID Country Implementation Technical Advisor Anafi Mataka said early diagnosis was critical to early treatment “because after one year we would have lost one of those cute babies, 30 percent of the infants will die if untreated”.
“By the second year of birth 50 percent of them would have also passed away,” Mr Mataka said, adding every year, 1.2 million infants were exposed to HIV and Aids in the 21 most affected countries. Lesotho is ranked second in the world with a 25 percent HIV prevalence rate
He said it was unfortunate that only half of those infants got a chance to be tested and out of the 600 000 tested babies, only 50 percent got their results.
He said in South Africa alone there was a ten-week delay in diagnosis and treatment whereas in Kenya about 44 percent of the infants never received their tests results.
Mr Mataka said it was important that HIV positive infants were initiated on treatment to ensure that they lead a healthy life-style and live long.
He said the new devices had been rigorously tested in laboratory environments and found to be efficacious.
Meanwhile, Minister Monyamane said the country was committed to eliminating HIV in Lesotho by 2030 as per the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 3 which seeks to end the Aids epidemic.
He said the new devices would help the country achieve its plans to eliminate the Aids pandemic in 2030 by helping Lesotho know the status of infants exposed to HIV and Aids without wasting any time.
“We will not shy away from the fact that since 2004 we have had problems of pregnant mothers who show up at the clinic for deliveries only and these devices will help us save the lives of those infants whose mothers did not go through PMTCT,” Dr Monyamane said.
“The new machinery makes it easier to test the child and put them on medication immediately if they test positive,” he said, adding that Lesotho was faced with HIV crisis due to the increase of new HIV infections which included mother to child infections.
He said government would ensure the machines were well taken care as they complemented the Test and Treat campaign launched in April this year.
“Due to Test and Treat, each month the number of people initiated on ART is increasing and these new devices will help us initiate more people on ART as it is giving infected infants a new lease of life,” Dr Monyamane said.