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CONGO: Taking testing to the people

Brazzaville, 14 April 2009 (IRIN) - Seated at his cluttered desk in the offices of Congo's National AIDS Council (CNLS), Franck Fortuné Mboussou is a very happy man. In a country where barely 10 percent of the female population has ever been tested for HIV, the organisation finally has enough money to buy a mobile testing unit.

"We have raised 113,346,500 CFA francs [US$218,000)] - this amount covers the majority of the costs to buy and operate a mobile testing unit in the city of Brazzaville [capital of Congo] ... our initial goal," Mboussou, the main technical advisor to CNLS, told IRIN/PlusNews.

"In reality the price of the vehicle is 75 million CFA francs [$144,000], so with the difference we are going to buy another mobile unit for Pointe-Noire."

Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, the financial capital on the Atlantic coast, are the largest cities in this central African country. According to the last prevalence survey, carried out at the end of 2003 with support from the World Bank, HIV infection, at around 5 percent, is highest in the two cities, which make up more than half the country's population.

Yet according to the 2005 national demographic health survey, less than 10 percent of women and 12 percent of men had been tested for HIV. Government estimates put the average HIV prevalence at 4.2 percent.

CNLS has already ordered the Brazzaville mobile unit from France. "The [vehicle] will arrive mid-May. It will be put into action as soon as it arrives," said Mboussou. Congo has also asked the World Bank to fund the purchase of six more mobile units for use in large towns in the south and north of the country.

The success of mobile units

"The purchase of modern mobile testing equipment was inspired by the experience of the 'basic' voluntary mobile testing centre, which was put in place in 2008 with support from the United Nations Population Fund," said Dr Marie-Francke Puruehnce, Executive Director of CNLS.

"This allowed for [up to] 150 people to be tested each day, which is the number for two to three months of activities at some stationary centres," Puruehnce noted.

The mobile unit, complete with its own laboratory, will be sent out to busy areas like schools, religious buildings, workplaces and markets to provide more easily accessible testing and flexible hours. "In stationary centres the hours of testing are the same as administrative working hours, whereas the mobile unit will operate even on non-working days at weekends," Mboussou said.

During the 'Téléthon' fundraising process, from January to mid-February, people could send a text message - at a cost of 300 francs (US$0.60) - with the word "AIDS" to one of the three private mobile telephone networks in Congo, or send a contribution by cheque or transfer to a bank account.

Mboussou noted that, fortunately, Congo has had no problem accessing funding from the international community. "The objective was to give people the opportunity to take control of their own health by showing that they are willing to fight against the disease [HIV/AIDS]," he said.

Despite the financial difficulties most Congolese face - more than half live on less than a dollar a day - many people said they understood the relevance of giving a contribution.

"Paying 300 francs for an SMS may seem pointless, but it is an important act because it is helping to prevent disaster – AIDS does not select its victims," Moké Miguel, an unemployed graduate who worked on the campaign, told IRIN/PlusNews.

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Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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