Thomas Katsande has been living with HIV for the past 25 years.
After the death of his wife at the turn of the millennium, the 63-year-old and father of five was initiated on antiretroviral treatment.
He has been religiously taking his drugs and visiting the nearby Masiyarwa Clinic for ART and viral load testing and monitoring, among other services.
Katsande is among scores of patients at the clinic, in Zvimba district, Mashonaland West province, when this publication visited the health centre last wednesday.
“I am here for viral load testing, I got my two-month drug supply a few days ago,” he said.
“I received a call from the clinic that I should come for viral load testing.”
Despite disruptions during the Covid-19 pandemic to HIV services, Katsande never missed taking the life-saving drugs, but he recalls near death experiences due to the respiratory disease.
“I am not sure if it was Covid-19 or something else, but there was a time when I had a serious fever,” he said.
“I am happy that I managed to collect my drugs during the Covid-19 period.
“We have witnessed people dying in the village because they don’t want to get tested for HIV and they don’t even want to get vaccinated.”
Katsande said the only way people could prevent diseases is to seek medical services from experts.
“I am worried that some people living with HIV opt to go to traditional leaders and faith healers,” he said.
“Why would one shun a clinic where they can be tested and initiated on ART?
“I have been on ART for the past 25 years and it’s unfortunate that my wife died because we were ignorant at the time.”
Katsande said he could not sit on his laurels while his kith and kin died because of ignorance.
“I am always talking to my relatives and friends on the importance of seeking health services,” he said.
“I just believe health services are there for us and we should utilise them.
“Covid-19 was here, it killed many of our friends and relatives and they say it is here to stay.
“And what options do we have?
“We need to follow what health experts say.”
Katsande said it was high time people got vaccinated against Covid-19.
“We want a situation where health officials would come into the village and test people for HIV, screen STIs, do cancer screening and vaccinate against Covid-19 all at once,” he said.
“Look what is being done with TB and HIV, people are getting integrated services.”
For Esther Chitaya of Denhere village (ward 4) in Zvimba district, it took an awareness campaign to convince her to go to the clinic to get her second dose of the Covid-19 jab.
Chitaya, just like a myriad of people in her community, had been hesitant to get the second dose, influenced by misconceptions and myths about the origins of Covid-19.
“I got my first dose at Matanhire shopping centre during a mobile vaccination programme and I never turned up for the second dose,” she said.
“Just recently, we had people from the Red Cross and Health ministry moving around our village telling us about the importance of vaccination and warning us that Covid-19 was not over.
“It was after this awareness drive that you find me and my colleagues here at the clinic to get vaccination.”
Chitaya is among thousands of people who have taken heed of the call to get vaccinated against Covid-19, thanks to the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society (ZRCS), which is implementing an Africa CDC Saving Lives and Livelihoods project whose main thrust is social mobilisation for Covid-19 vaccine demand and uptake.
The project, which is being implemented in Mashonaland West and Midlands provinces, is facilitated by the Health and Child Care ministry with support from Africa CDC Saving Lives and Livelihoods in partnership with MasterCard Foundation.
“I have realised the importance of being vaccinated and I want to urge others to do so,” Chitaya said.
“I think what the government is doing is essential because they are protecting us from future disasters.
“We saw people dying of Covid-19 and we can’t afford losing more just because they are not vaccinated.”
Nineteen-year-old Tivaudze Mushangwe, who was getting his first Covid-19 jab at Nyabira clinic in Zvimba district, said it was important for authorities to intensify awareness campaigns.
“Many people are still in the dark with regards to Covid-19 and they believe it’s gone,” he said.
“If it were not for the employer who was demanding the Covid-19 vaccination card, maybe I would have not come.
“However, I am happy that lately we have seen Red Cross and health workers moving around encouraging people to get vaccinated.”
Mushangwe said it was high time that Covid-19 services be incorporated into other health services programmes.
“I think they should now consider Covid-19 like any other disease, for instance, when they hold HIV and Aids campaigns, they should also embrace Covid-19,” he said.
“What they are doing at work is highly commendable because it’s one way of encouraging people to get vaccinated.”
ZRCS secretary-general Elias Hwenga said they had seen a remarkable increase in the number of people being vaccinated since the inception of the programme.
“You would realise that the main thrust of this project is social mobilisation for Covid-19 vaccine demand and uptake,” he said.
“I am happy that our teams and village health workers have got the training and are getting into the communities.”
Africa CDC Saving Lives and Livelihood Programme national coordinator Charles Ibeneme said the initiative by Africa CDC and MasterCard Foundation aims to support the African Union’s goal to immunise at least 70% of Africa’s population while also investing in the continent’s long-term health security.
“The Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative is a partnership between the MasterCard Foundation and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) designed to save the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in Africa and hasten the economic recovery of the continent in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Ibeneme.
“The initiative is acquiring vaccines for more than 65 million people, supporting the delivery of vaccinations to millions more across the continent, including Zimbabwe, laying the groundwork for vaccine manufacturing in Africa through a focus on human capital development and strengthening the Africa CDC.”
Ibeneme said in Zimbabwe they were working closely with the Health ministry and other stakeholders to bring the services closer to the people.
He said during the 10-month implementation of the project they would train village health workers, ZRCS volunteers and influential people in communities with the aim of mobilising people for vaccine uptake.
“By being closer to the people we would lessen the burden of villagers,” Ibeneme said.
“We want the Covid-19 service to get to the last mile, we want villagers to access the service.”
Ibeneme said going forward they would want a situation where Covid-19 vaccination is integrated into other services in order to address barriers such as physical access and inconvenience as well as the cost of delivery.
“We need to decentralise and integrate Covid-19 services into TB and HIV clinics and non-communicable diseases,” he said.