PEPFAR Media Training Closing Ceremony
Remarks by Ambassador Stephanie S. Sullivan
Virtual Platform: Zoom
September 3, 2020 2:00 p.m.
Congratulations on completing the PEPFAR Media Training! And congratulations on pioneering the virtual platform for the training. Ayikoo!
Over the past seven weeks, I have enjoyed seeing and hearing your great coverage of important HIV topics, such as stigma and discrimination, estimates of people living with HIV, the importance of the test-and-treat model, and the successes of the PEPFAR program here in Ghana.
The U.S. Government is delighted to offer initiatives such as this workshop, because, as we’ve seen in the past seven weeks, they are effective. PEPFAR, as all of you who’ve participated in this program know, is the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
PEPFAR is a whole of government program that involves the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Department of State, and the Department of Defense (DOD). PEPFAR is a great example of a good idea conceived by an administration of one political party and not only continued, but also reinforced, by successive administrations of another political party, with strong, persistent, bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress, which controls the purse strings of our Executive Branch.
For the past 17 years, PEPFAR has sought to achieve HIV/AIDS epidemic control in more than 50 countries around the world, including Ghana for the past 13 years. PEPFAR’s efforts have improved the ability of partner countries to swiftly address other outbreaks and strengthened the platform for global health security. We are truly gratified to see how countries around the world have significantly benefitted from this long-term U.S. partnership in strengthening health systems through PEPFAR, as we all confront the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we all know, physical distancing is the best way to minimize and avoid the transmission of COVID-19. We have also learned that asymptomatic carriers can transmit COVID-19. However, as you learned during your workshop, with HIV, an undetectable HIV viral load means those with this deadly disease cannot transmit it to anybody else.
Your ability to help your audiences clearly understand this key difference in the two viruses will be critical to improving public health and saving lives in Ghana. You can help prevent confusion on this point about transmission. When AIDS first emerged, HIV was a death sentence.
That is no longer the case. “Undetectable” means that a test cannot detect the virus in the blood of a person living with HIV, although extremely small amounts of HIV are still present. Someone who takes and stays on HIV treatment, and is “undetectable” for 6 or more continuous months, does not transmit the virus through sex.
Undetectable also means the virus is being well controlled by HIV medication. If a person with undetectable HIV stops their medications, however, the virus will return to a detectable level, which then increases the risk of transmission.
The unsuppressed virus starts causing damage, making the person sick. This is why remaining on treatment is so vital not only to keeping people with HIV healthy, but to achieving a world without AIDS. This approach is also known as “treatment as prevention.” Remember, for HIV: Undetectable equals Untransmissible. U=U!
Here in Ghana, I’m confident we can work together towards achieving the UNAIDS’ FastTrack 95-95-95 goal, which aims for: 95% of the people living with HIV to know their positive status; 95% of those who test positive to be on sustained treatment; and 95% of those on treatment to have suppressed their viral load to the point where they cannot transmit it to anybody else.
While visiting the Western Region last October to launch the joint strategy to achieve HIV epidemic control there, I witnessed firsthand the need, and saw the early successes we had achieved together with our Government of Ghana partners. I am pleased to report that since PEPFAR’s pivot to focus on achieving epidemic control in the Western Region, more than 4,500 new positive cases have been identified, 95% of people who newly tested positive were linked to treatment, and 73% of those on treatment had a suppressed viral load, with 60% of clients receiving the more convenient, multi-month dispensing of their anti-retroviral treatment, or MMD.
With the introduction of the new HIV treatment known as TLD, which I like to refer to as The Life Drugs – TLD,we helped transition over 40% of eligible clients to this treatment and are striving to reach 100% by October this year. Due to COVID-19, the number of patients visiting health care facilities has decreased, which has reduced our ability to provide HIV testing. However, using a whole of government approach, the United States is working together with our Government of Ghana partners to mitigate this challenge, and to scale up the effective interventions and best practices implemented in the Western Region to other regions.
Through USAID support to the supply chain infrastructure, we have ensured that antiretrovirals and test kits remain in stock at all sites. Through PEPFAR’s Key Population Investment Fund, USAID is supporting the roll-out of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, and HIV self-testing in the Western Region, as well as in some areas of the Ashanti and Greater Accra Regions.
CDC continues to support Ghana’s National AIDS Control Program to enhance data collection and analysis, including implementing a viral load data system, improving data accuracy, and reducing the wait time for results. CDC also works to bolster the laboratory specimen transport system, to ensure collected samples are tested in a timely manner. And CDC’s work with the Ghana AIDS Commission has improved data availability for key population services and supported the generation of national and sub-national estimates of people living with HIV.
These key data help the Government of Ghana monitor and evaluate progress, and make better-informed, data-driven decisions, including about allocating resources. The U.S. Department of Defense, meanwhile, has worked to strengthen capacity in testing and treatment services at 37 Military Hospital in Accra, and improved both data collection and use.
Through PEPFAR, DOD works with the Military Hospital to reduce HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination within the facility and among clients. While the focus is on personnel affiliated with the Ghana Armed Forces, everyone who seeks services and treatment at 37 Military Hospital benefit from support through PEPFAR.
I’d like to thank our partners who led this training, the African Center for Development Reporting and Media HealthLink. While your training ends this week, your work to raise awareness and improve the lives of those living with HIV will continue. Your continued coverage, presented in a nontechnical way so that ordinary people like me can easily understand, will help address stigma and discrimination and lead people to take advantage of available HIV services.
I applaud the Government of Ghana’s achievements to date, with the support of PEPFAR and in close collaboration with the Global Fund and UNAIDS. However, we are not yet done. We cannot rest on our oars! The U.S. Government remains deeply committed to expanding key populations’ access to quality, stigma-free, lifesaving HIV prevention, testing, and treatment services. And with your help, through informed and informative media coverage, we can and will end stigma and discrimination and also reach epidemic control!
I look forward to seeing more of your work. Thank you for all you have done, and will continue to do, through your reporting, to help improve the lives of both those at risk and those already living with HIV. Thank you for playing your part in achieving a world without AIDS!
Remember, when it comes to HIV, people starting and staying on treatment prevents the spread of HIV, and undetectable equals untransmissible. U=U!
Thank you for your kind attention.