June 23, 2003

Discussion on compulsory testing for HIV

Citizens of Botswana visiting hospitals and clinics may soon be subjected to HIV/AIDS testing, if recommendations of a recent workshop organised by the Ministry of Health for health professionals are considered.

Patson Mazonde, the director of Botswana's Health Services, told AANA in an interview that it was high time the country's HIV/AIDS policy made room for testing everyone for the virus. "This, however, must be done in a manner that does not compromise individuals' rights, while at the same time striking a balance with public health," he said.

Botswana's present policy on HIV/AIDS says testing is not mandatory to a person visiting a clinic or hospital, unless it is meant to protect the unborn child, in the case of a pregnant woman, or when one is suffering from syphilis, said Mazonde. "The policy on AIDS was useful for its time," said Mazonde, noting, "It is high time we revisit it to strengthen it. For example, if HIV testing becomes routine, it will help as many people as possible to know their status."

Botswana is currently going through a programme of providing antiretroviral therapy to people who test positive to HIV. But the health ministry says that although 39 percent of the people aged between 16 and 49 years carry the virus, according to 2002 statistics from the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP), only a few are participating in the antiretroviral therapy programme. "The earlier people know their status, the more chances there are for assessing care and treatment," Mazonde asserted. He said the practice at present is "opt in", in which a person visiting a doctor is examined for the purpose of treating his or her condition. For an HIV test, the patients have to give their consent. Even President Festus Mogae has voiced his concern on testing, saying people are not taking advantage of the Tebelopele Testing Centres, which provide free HIV testing.

But human rights organisations are not convinced over the need to review the country's HIV/AIDS policy. Musa Khutso from Botswana's Centre for Human Rights (Ditshwanelo), said compulsory testing would be contrary to the human rights charter. "It is up to an individual to know his or her status, unless he or she is putting people at risk," he said.

But precedence on mandatory testing has already been set in Botswana. Debswana, the giant diamond mining company and the biggest employer in the country, tests all applicants for HIV in its mines. The government also tests expatriate workers it hires. (African Church Information Service)

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