Like the rest of the world, COVID-19 has hit Côte d’Ivoire hard. As soon as the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in March 2020, a national response plan was developed by the government. Unfortunately, the restrictive measures to protect the population had an impact on the use of health services, including those related to HIV, threatening the fragile retention in care of people living with HIV. Pregnant and lactating women living with HIV and their children, one of the most vulnerable groups, have been particularly affected, and maintaining their access to services and care was essential to avoid undoing years of effort.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNAIDS joined forces to help retain 333 pregnant and lactating women living with HIV in antenatal, maternity and paediatric services in Abidjan. The project will provide, over nine months, 1000 food kits and 1000 hygiene kits to help beneficiaries with food assistance and help them protect themselves against COVID-19. A food kit contains 20 kg of rice, six litres of oil, 10 pieces of soap and four boxes of children’s flour, and a hygiene kit contains two bottles of hydroalcoholic gel, two bottles of liquid soap and 50 surgical masks. The project also aimed to ensure that the women have access to the comprehensive package of services developed under Côte d’Ivoire’s prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (vertical transmission) programme, to ensure that all exposed children of the project’s beneficiaries are screened early and have access to appropriate care and to document and share good practices.
One of the beneficiaries, Ouattara Maimouna, who has been living with HIV for five years and is a breastfeeding mother of three children, said, “Doctor, this gift was incredibly important to us. It has helped us a lot! This stock of food helps me feed my family. I cannot thank you enough, because I ran out of ways to sustain the small business that used to support my family.”
“About 700 hygiene kits and 700 food kits have been distributed since the project started in December 2020. The United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief’s (PEPFAR) implementing partners unanimously indicate that the kits have contributed to the loyalty of pregnant and breastfeeding women to prevention of vertical transmission of HIV and paediatric care services, as well as to self-support groups,” said Brigitte Quenum, the UNAIDS Country Director for Côte d’Ivoire.
At this stage of implementation, some lessons learned are already emerging. The project has been very well received by the beneficiaries because of their vulnerability, which has been aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis. The support has helped to increase their compliance with appointments at the various prenatal consultations, to improve the continuity of treatment and viral load testing for pregnant and breastfeeding women and to strengthen the link between women living with HIV and the staff providing both clinical and community care. The project also emphasizes the importance of taking into account the social component in the care of women in prevention of vertical transmission of HIV services.
The distribution of food and hygiene kits will continue until the end of 2021. Pregnant and breastfeeding women living with HIV have become more vulnerable in the midst of the response to COVID-19 and assistance strategies that respond to their specific sensitivities must be designed. “The mobilization of UNDP, UNAIDS, PEPFAR implementing partners and their nongovernmental organization partners has ensured a coalition of support for advocacy and the scaling up of outreach efforts to vulnerable populations,” added Ms Quenum. “While this one-time initiative is useful, efforts should be made to integrate other activities, such as nutrition promotion and the integration of a social component in the care of women living with HIV in vertical transmission services and other care sites.”
An HIV-sensitive and inclusive social protection assessment will start in the coming months in collaboration with the key ministries involved. Mobilization of funds for social aspects related to women living with HIV and advocacy for sustainable support measures will be required.