Category Archives: Stefan Wiktor

From Beneficiaries to Mentors: Three Women Pass Their DREAMS On to Others

A group of DREAMS ambassadors in Zimbabwe. Photo credit: Zim-TTECH

After facing incredible obstacles, three resilient 22-year-old women from Tsholotsho District, Zimbabwe, found their lives intersecting: Sitheni, Clemencia, and Faith are DREAMS ambassadors, equipping adolescent girls and young women with skills to reduce their vulnerability to contracting HIV–and helping them to find their own strengths.

DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe) is a PEPFAR-funded program that aims to reduce HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women through not only prevention and treatment, but also a core curriculum that addresses HIV prevention, financial literacy, and gender-based violence (GBV). Participants can also access services such as HIV testing, family planning, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), counseling, and screening for GBV.

The International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) has been supporting the Zimbabwe Technical Assistance, Training and Education Center for Health (Zim-TTECH) and its ZimPAAC consortium to implement the DREAMS program since 2020. To date, nearly 20,000 girls and young women in Zimbabwe have completed the primary DREAMS curriculum, Health for Life.

Sitheni, Clemencia, and Faith were initially enrolled in the DREAMS program as beneficiaries, having turned to transactional relationships (trading sex for money or necessities) to survive poverty amid the deepening economic crisis in Zimbabwe. They now use their own experiences to give back to young women who face similar choices.

Sitheni had to abandon her life-long goal of attending university to support her parents and four siblings; carrying the burden of sole provider for her family took a toll on her. When earnings from her part-time jobs weren’t enough, she became involved in sexual relationships with older, cross-border traders—known as omalayitsha—to make extra money.

Once enrolled in the DREAMS program, she thrived within the Health for Life courses, which cover financial literacy, social asset building, condom education, and violence and HIV prevention. “I encourage young girls in my community not to depend on men, but to use their skills instead of waiting to be given money by men who will abuse them,” Sitheni says.

Training and services are often provided in a safe space such as a school or community center, where participants meet with a mentor trained to deliver the Health for Life curriculum.

“At the moment I mentor 140 adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 in the district,” says Faith, who also dated older men for money in order to make ends meet. “It is my duty to link adolescents with the district clinical nurse to access services at health facilities and safe spaces. I also encourage women to support people living with HIV/AIDS in the community. I teach them about human rights and encourage them to utilize their talents to make a living.”

Another part of Faith’s job is enrolling and following up on beneficiaries as well as supporting community-based facilitators who teach social asset building. This includes facilitating relationships and connections within DREAMS safe spaces to share encouragement and survival skills.

These safe spaces were critical to providing hope and new options for Clemencia. “After my father passed away, there was no one to pay for my school fees,” she says. “I came to my wits’ end, and I ended up exchanging sex for livelihood. At that time, it seemed the only viable option.”

Clemencia traded sex for two-and-a-half years, placing her among those at highest risk for HIV acquisition in Zimbabwe.[1] “Luckily for me, I did not get infected with HIV,” she says. “Ever since joining DREAMS, I have become empowered, and I know how to protect myself from sexual violence.”

Thanks to what she learned in her financial literacy sessions, Clemencia has started a small business of breeding hens and selling them to community members. “I also sell clothes for extra income,” says Clemencia, who now encourages other young women to complete their financial literacy sessions so they can start their own businesses and become independent.

Faith is thrilled to be able to foster this independence, as well. “Little did I know that I could make an honest living without anyone having expectations from me,” she says. “I am now able to encourage other girls and young women to stop engaging in transactional relationships. I am able to do this because I have been mentored and I have knowledge about HIV/AIDS and violence against women.”

 

[1] Chiyaka T, Mushati P, Hensen B et al. Reaching young women who sell sex: Methods and results of social mapping to describe and identify young women for DREAMS impact evaluation in Zimbabwe. PLoS One. 2018 Mar 15;13(3):e0194301. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0194301. eCollection 2018.

 

I-TECH Network Minimizes Disruptions in Treatment Access for PLHIV During COVID-19

By Chelsea Elkins

Members of a Community Adherence Refill Group in Zimbabwe

In a time of increased barriers, disruptions, and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) and its network partners have implemented new approaches and adapted existing programs to support continued access to antiretroviral therapy (ART).

As a result of the pandemic, many organizations and health systems have had to shift to offering virtual care, which allows ART initiation and other HIV services to persist while minimizing patients’ risk of exposure to COVID-19. However, not all patients have access to the technology that makes virtual services possible, and additional approaches are needed to support ART treatment access during this time.

“Globally, the pandemic has generated innovative responses from communities and health systems that are striving to keep people connected to care,” says Dr. Pamela Collins, I-TECH Executive Director. “One challenge is to recognize how (or when) some adaptations increase disparities in access. We’ve learned that the right combinations of technological and no-tech solutions can also be innovative if they help provide the care that’s needed.”

One way I-TECH has helped to provide innovative care during the pandemic is by centering solutions within the affected communities themselves. A few of the community-oriented approaches that the I-TECH network has implemented include decentralized ART centers, community outreach, home delivery, community adherence refill groups (CARGs), and multi-month dispensing (MMD) of antiretroviral (ARV) medication.

Decentralized ART Refill Sites and Community Outreach

Decentralized refill sites have been an essential strategy during lockdown restrictions for I-TECH’s network partners because they allow ART to be distributed at more convenient locations, minimizing travel and treatment interruptions. Some programs have also started providing mobile outreach to improve ART access during the pandemic, at times even providing doorstep delivery to those who are unable to go to a clinic or refill center.

I-TECH’s network partner in India, the UW International Training & Education Centre for Health Private Limited (I-TECH India) launched the ARTMitra helpline in Mumbai, an outreach effort designed to map the location of unreachable PLHIV and aid in planning decentralized ART refill sites. SMS messages were delivered to 13,103 PLHIV who had missed appointments during the pandemic, resulting in the identification of 42 decentralized ART refill centers in Mumbai in 2020. A similar helpline was launched in five districts of the state of Mizoram in partnership with the State AIDS Control Society. In total, I-TECH India, in close coordination with government partners in the PEPFAR states in Northeast India and in Mumbai, has ensured uninterrupted ART delivery through 145 decentralized ART refill sites.

Through outreach efforts, clients were notified about how they could access medication, and which decentralized ART refill site they should visit. Additionally, ART home delivery was provided to 255 PLHIV living in Mumbai who were unable to pick up their medication.

Thank you for calling and informing me about the availability of medicine at the nearby ART Centre, as I had no idea whom to contact and how to collect medicine.

—an ARTMitra client in Mumbai

I-TECH network partner the Zimbabwe Technical Assistance, Training and Education Center for Health (Zim-TTECH) has also utilized community outreach to support PLHIV during the pandemic. Zim-TTECH has supported the Zimbabwe Partnership to Accelerate AIDS Control (ZimPAAC) consortium—along with PEPFAR partners, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and in close collaboration with national efforts—to provide mobile HIV care, including prevention services and integrated services at ART events. In the Harare District, 8,257 clients were supplied ART during outreach events from 28 March through 17 July 2021.

Community Adherence Refill Groups and Multi-Month ART Dispensing

Through CARGs, a community of PLHIV access treatment more easily by sending a representative to receive ARVs for the entire group. The I-TECH network implements CARGs in a number of countries, using the person-centered approach to simplify HIV care and reduce the need for in-person services. This approach is often used in tandem with MMD, allowing a group to access multiple months of medication at a time.

While ARVs have traditionally been prescribed monthly, MMD allows patients to pick up medication for 2 to 6 months and reduces traditional barriers, such as access to transportation and taking time off work, as well as barriers specific to COVID-19, such as lockdown restrictions and limited capacity of health care facilities. I-TECH and its network partners have scaled up MMD in many programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, effectively minimizing the number of in-person visits and encouraging ART adherence.

In response to COVID-19 and in partnership with CDC, the Ministry of Health and Social Services (MoHSS) in Namibia introduced a new MMD policy in April 2020 for eligible ART patients, making more people eligible for this service than ever before. In addition to policy support, I-TECH Namibia is engaged in technical support to the national HIV/AIDS program through clinical mentors who work in more than half of Namibia’s health districts. This national engagement has contributed to a rapid increase in the number of eligible ART patients who now receive between 2 to 6 months’ supply of ARVs at a time.

‘’As the number of ART patients on MMD increased, waiting areas in Namibia’s health facilities have rapidly decongested, enhancing COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures,” says Dr. Norbert Forster, I-TECH Namibia’s Country Director. “At the same time, our HIV clinicians now have more time to focus their care on patient engagement and on enhancing viral load suppression and other interventions.”

I-TECH’S WORK IN INDIA IS SUPPORTED BY THE HEALTH RESOURCES AND SERVICES ADMINISTRATION (HRSA) OF THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES (HHS) UNDER U91HA06801, THE INTERNATIONAL AIDS EDUCATION AND TRAINING CENTER (IAETC). THE CONTENT OF THIS POST IS THE AUTHOR’S AND SHOULD NOT BE CONSTRUED AS THE OFFICIAL POSITION OR POLICY OF, NOR SHOULD ANY ENDORSEMENTS BE INFERRED BY HRSA, HHS OR THE U.S. GOVERNMENT.

Despite COVID-19 Challenges, I-TECH Supports Progress Toward Cervical Cancer Elimination

The World Health Organization (WHO) Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer, launched in November 2020, calls for a world where cervical cancer—which kills more than 300,000 women per year—is eliminated. To achieve this, the strategy proposes ambitious 90-70-90 targets over the next decade.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely hindered critical work on cervical cancer interventions, including reduced clinic flow, training opportunities, and outreach.

Due to agile programs and dedicated staff, several teams within the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) network, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, have continued to make strides toward the WHO cervical cancer elimination goal.

Record-breaking cervical cancer screening in Namibia

The I-TECH Namibia program focuses on cervical cancer screening services for women living with HIV (WLHIV). Namibia’s national antiretroviral therapy (ART) program has rapidly adjusted to COVID-19 and the need to decongest public health facilities through multi-month dispensing (MMD) of ART. While this has helped with ART access, it has significantly reduced opportunities for performing facility-based services, since the frequency of health facility visits by women on ART has declined rapidly.

In close collaboration with the Namibia Ministry of Health and Social Services (MoHSS), I-TECH is implementing enhanced facility-based screening campaigns to increase access and rapidly reach more women. For these enhanced screenings, clients within a district are mobilized and given paced appointment times at several facilities in-line with COVID-19 restrictions. Service providers are then assigned to the specific sites where they provide screening services.

From 8-12 February, 805 women were screened through visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA) or Pap smear, 95% of whom were women living with HIV (WLHIV). Of the 137 women screened VIA positive, 98% received treatment. This campaign broke national records by achieving the highest recorded number of women screened in a 5-day campaign, as well as the highest number of women screened in a single day (210).

“As the COVID 19 pandemic rages on, and preventative restrictions limit client screening, the downtime should be used in planning for catch-up screening activities,” says Dr. Laura Muzingwani, I-TECH’s Cervical Cancer Lead Physician in Namibia. “Resource and client mobilization are both key to prepare for any window of opportunity when COVID restrictions are relaxed to enable rapid mass screening.”

Mentoring and training continues in Mozambique via videoconferencing technology

In close collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center—a Project ECHO® “superhub” for oncology—I-TECH has continued its monthly cervical cancer ECHO sessions in Mozambique, with an additional focus on COVID-19 safety and risk reduction. An average of 40 participants attend each session, and topics have included cervical changes in older women; relevance of normal and abnormal colposcopic findings; and hygiene, disinfection, and asepsis of materials.

“Although the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic was sudden, it was possible to adapt quickly using remote information and communication technologies,” says Dr. Ernestina David, Program Manager for the I-TECH Cervical Cancer Prevention Program. “The ECHO videoconference sessions made it possible to bring together providers across the country to address uterine cancer and diagnose and treat pre-cancerous lesions, using local cases and looking for ways to approach and treat them.”

In addition, the Mozambique team has continued its regional cervical cancer trainings in a blended format (both virtual and in-person components). I-TECH has implemented three trainings using a model spearheaded by MD Anderson, wherein a two-day LEEP and colposcopy training was adjusted so that trainers could join via Zoom in lieu of traveling to Mozambique.

While some participants join only the Zoom sessions, others are able to watch the sessions from a classroom setting and then work through skills-building demo stations, followed by practice on patients at a provincial hospital.

Access to services increase through health communication in Malawi

Despite the Malawi government indicating cervical cancer screening, care, and treatment as priority services, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, most facilities did not include cervical cancer services on their priority lists. Facilities either completely suspended or heavily reduced screening and treatment. This, coupled with fears among targeted women about contracting COVID-19, marginalized access to services.

To combat these challenges, I-TECH delivered health talks within communities on how women can protect themselves as they access services (social distancing, hand washing, use of face masks, etc.). Those reached were encouraged to pass on information to others.

I-TECH also engaged district health officers and those in charge of affected facilities on the need to continue providing cervical cancer services, in line with MOH COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Presenters emphasized the burden of cervical cancer and how it would worsen should services be interrupted for the entirety of the pandemic. Discussion also touched on including cervical cancer providers on the rotation roster and ensuring that commodities were available.

In Malawi, 391 health facilities are currently providing cervical cancer screening services, and 80% of those health facilities are also providing treatment services. More than a quarter of a million women were screened between January 2020 and June 2021, 57% of whom were WLHIV.

Zimbabwe consortium takes measures to blunt the impact of COVID-19

I-TECH and its network partner the Zimbabwe Training, Technical Assistance and Education Center for Health (Zim-TTECH) implement cervical cancer screening and treatment via the local Zimbabwean consortium ZimPAAC.

By March 2021, ZimPAAC had achieved 53% of the annual target for the number of women on ART screened for cervical cancer. ZimPAAC implemented several measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on continuity of cervical cancer screening services, including:

  • Training of all health care workers on COVID-19 safety and security, transmission, and prevention;
  • Support to ensure infection prevention and control (IPC) and triage at health facilities through training, procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), hand washing stations/commodities, face masks for both staff and clients in need; and
  • Procurement and distribution adequate PPE for use by health care workers at facilities.

I-TECH Zimbabwe Office Transitions to Local Organization

Zim-TTECH staff supports Kowoyo Clinic in Goromonzi District, Mashonaland East Province, Zimbabwe. Photo credit: Macpherson Photographers.

The International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) has transitioned another office to an autonomous entity. The Zimbabwe Technical Assistance, Training and Education Center for Health (Zim-TTECH) was officially launched on April 1, 2020, as a locally registered health trust. Zim-TTECH is the administrative and managing partner for the two existing I-TECH CDC/PEPFAR funded grants in Zimbabwe, each grant having a consortium of local partners:

  • ZimPAAC (Zimbabwe Partnership to Accelerate AIDS Control) is a partnership between Zim-TTECH, Africaid, Pangaea Zimbabwe AIDS Trust, and I-TECH. ZimPAAC collaborates with the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) on context-appropriate health interventions to improve access to, as well as strengthen the quality of HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support services. ZimPAAC provides services at 373 facilities in 17 districts.
  • ZAZIC is a partnership between Zim-TTECH, I-TECH, and two local implementing partners—Zimbabwe Association of Church Related Hospitals (ZACH) and Zimbabwe Community Health Intervention Research Project (ZiCHIRe). ZAZIC supports voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) services at 38 static facilities in 13 districts.

“The transition from an I-TECH country office to a fully fledged independent local organization is exciting,” states Dr. Batsirai Makunike-Chikwinya, Zim-TTECH’s Executive Director. “Zim-TTECH is committed to continue to provide high-quality support to the MoHCC and to the health sector as a whole. Special thanks go to management and staff of both I-TECH/UW [University of Washington] and UZCHS-CTRC [University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences Clinical Trials Research Centre], who played pivotal roles during this transition.”

I-TECH has worked in Zimbabwe since 2003, collaborating with the MoHCC and other partners to improve clinical services and strengthen health systems.  “It is a pleasure to support the launch of Zim-TTECH, which is the right next step toward country ownership and, importantly, recognizes the high level of skill and professionalism of the prior I-TECH country office and now Zim-TTECH team,” remarks Dr. Scott Barnhart.

Expanding HIV Care and Treatment in Zimbabwe

The ZimPAAC consortium collaborates with the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) in Zimbabwe to meet the following primary HIV epidemic control objectives:

  • Diagnose 95% of all persons living with HIV through integrated testing
  • Ensure 95% of individuals diagnosed with HIV are initiated on antiretroviral therapy (ART), retained in care, and are virally suppressed using differentiated service delivery models

Using a Differentiated care model, a patient-centered model of service delivery designed to meet the diverse needs and expectations of all people living with HIV, ZimPAAC oversees activities such as:

  • facility and community-based HIV testing;
  • HIV self-testing, index case testing;
  • ART initiation; and
  • ART delivery through multi-month refills for stable patients, Family ART Refill Groups, and Community ART Refill Groups (CARGs). CARGs benefit group members—through decreasing health center visits, offering peer support, and allowing clients to take responsibility for their health—and staff, by decreasing workload and allowing greater time for patient care.
I-TECH Zimbabwe Care and Treatment Sites and Districts

A map of I-TECH’s Care and Treatment Sites and Districts in Zimbabwe.

In addition to differentiated service delivery, ZimPAAC conducts site-level mentoring at health facilities to strengthen health service delivery towards the “95-95-95” UNAIDS targets by improving patient linkages between HIV testing, initiation on treatment, and retention in care rates. This is accomplished in part by several hundred dedicated HIV testers and nurses who support ART initiation and management of opportunistic infections alongside MoHCC staff.

ZimPAAC also supports index testing through community linkages activities that help clients access HIV testing, especially sexual partners and biological children of existing HIV-positive clients who present to the health facilities. In an effort to improve index testing within MoHCC health facilities, ZimPAAC has implemented an assisted partner service model, known as Enhanced Index Case Testing. This program emphasizes reaching clients recently diagnosed with HIV and those whose blood tests show a high HIV viral load. Quality Improvement activities are a key part of ZimPAAC’s approach to improving outcomes for index testing. In 2019, a “change package” describing the interventions that have improved index testing was developed by ZimPAAC for national scale-up of the model.

ZimPAAC program activities also support retaining people living with HIV in care. Programs engage community linkage facilitators who work with facilities and communities to identify patients who have defaulted from treatment and return them to services.

In addition to HIV care and prevention for adults, ZimPAAC supports increased access to services for children and adolescents through Africaid’s community adolescent treatment supporters (CATS). CATS are HIV positive 18-to-24-year-olds trained to provide peer support, conduct demand-creation activities, build community engagement, and mobilize targeted HIV testing and outreach activities to bring services to this hard-to-reach group.

In addition to the first two objectives, ZimPAAC collaborates with MoHCC towards two additional objectives:

  • Strengthen and expand access to cervical cancer screening and treatment of precancerous cervical lesions among women living with HIV
  • Increase uptake of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) services through training, technical assistance and direct client support

In 2019, ZimPAAC began the expansion of cervical cancer screening for women living with HIV, beginning with a situational analysis to identify sites for implementation of a program serving women with visual inspection with acetic acid and cerviography.

Under the direction of PZAT, ZimPAAC also works closely with the MoHCC to support key-population-friendly programming in the public health sector facilities in Harare. PZAT supports health worker training at selected facilities and builds demand and knowledge of these services through community champions and engagement with vulnerable populations and advocacy and civil society organizations. PZAT also works to promote PrEP services for adolescent girls and young women in Mazowe district and among key populations in Harare.

Using Innovative Technology for Better Data in Zimbabwe

The ZimPAAC consortium has supported high-quality health care worker (HCW) knowledge and skills in Zimbabwe with technologies such as applications with clinical resources for clinicians, tablet-based data collection, and self-study modules. Through the use of self-study courses, HCWs complete learning activities using case scenarios in either prevention of mother-to-child transmission client retention, HIV testing services for children and adolescents, or viral load testing. ZimPAAC also uses WhatsApp messaging groups as a training intervention during self-study for peer-to-peer learning and support. Tablet-based data collection has now become the norm for most sites.

ZimPAAC also continually works to strengthen its program monitoring systems, such as the deployment of TrainSMART as the national training database. Recently, ZimPAAC developed and introduced the ZimPAAC Data Improvement Plan (ZDIP)—a new system of electronic data collection tools that will improve reporting and give facility and district staff better access to data. The new digital forms in ZDIP offer built-in data quality checks, the ability to view graphs, and provides faster feedback to sites so they can use the data for facility-based improvements.

Expanding Cervical Cancer Screening in Zimbabwe

I-TECH began the expansion of cervical cancer screening for women living with HIV aged 25-49 in Zimbabwe in 2019. I-TECH initially identified a provisional list of 89 sites for the implementation of visual inspection with acetic acid and cerviography (VIAC). The team then recruited, trained, and deployed dedicated VIAC nurses to 29 sites. Additionally, in an effort to improve service coverage in hard to reach areas without the necessary equipment, district teams carry VIAC equipment to outreach point facilities who have booked client appointments in advance. Random samples of images from clients are anonymized and sent to a gynecologist from the University of Zimbabwe for quality assurance.

Across all facilities, 9,664 HIV-positive women aged 25-49 years have been screened for cervical cancer with 93% testing negative, 6% testing positive for lesions, and 1% having suspected cancer.