In total, 23,495 people tested positive for HIV in the first half of this year (January to June), official figures have revealed.
The figure is 2% of the 948,094 people who undertook HIV testing between January and June 2022.
The bulk of those affected belong to varying demographic groups: men, pregnant women, non-pregnant women, homosexuals and female sex workers.
The programme manager of the National STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections) and HIV/Aids Control Programme, Stephen Ayisi Addo, made the figures known in an interview with the Daily Graphic in Accra. He said even though last year’s half-year figure was 25,545, this year’s tally was still too high.
Prevention better than cure
“The figure for this new infection is too high, so we need to intensify education to let people know that HIV is still real; it is around and there must be constant reminders.
“We have to let people know that they need to stick to the prevention strategies, whether they are children or adults,” he said.
He said of the people who presented themselves for testing, 4% each were from the Bono, Ahafo, Eastern and Western North Regions, while the Ashanti and Greater Accra Regions offered 3% each.
For the other regions, he said, while some registered 2%, others had 1 percentage point each. Dr Ayisi Addo said most of the 23,495 people who tested positive had since been placed on HIV treatment.
Reasons for new cases
On the reasons behind the new cases, the programme manager said unlike smallpox and other diseases that had been eliminated, HIV is still circulating in the population, and that as long as people are having sex and getting married, they will transmit STIs to others.
Complacency and ignorance are responsible for the new cases, Dr Ayisi Addo said, explaining that because health officials are no longer making noise about the dangers of HIV, people think there is no longer a problem.
“Some youth today don’t know HIV is there. Some know, but they have assumed that it’s gone. People are now more afraid of COVID-19 and the Marburg fever than they are of Aids,” he said.
Overall, as of December 2021, the estimated population of HIV-positive individuals in Ghana was 350,000, with only 71 per cent being identified by the control programme.
Of that number, be noted, over 245,000 (representing 99%) were receiving treatment as of June this year.
Regarding the viral suppression stage, when the disease is no longer transmissible, he said about 79% of those who have the disease and are taking medication have reached this stage.
Dr Ayisi Addo said the percentages on testing, treatment and suppression show that Ghana is making progress in attaining the 95/95/95 testing, treatment and viral suppression rates target, set by the United Nations.
What is the 95/95/95 target?
The first 95 means that by 2025, 95% of the total population of persons who are HIV-positive should know their HIV status.
The second 95 means that by 2025, 95% of those who tested for HIV should be on medication if they tested positive, while the last 95 sets a target so that, by 2025, the 95% who are taking medication should have viral suppression.
Ghana currently has achieved 71/99/79 towards the target.
“The reason for this is that science has shown that when people have viral suppression, which in the laboratory is read as undetectable viral load, the likelihood of transmission is almost zero, so we refer to it as U = U, meaning undetectable is equal to untransmissible,” Dr Ayisi Addo said.
“If we are able to achieve that, it is like achieving herd immunity in vaccination. Very soon, people will not be transmitting and, therefore, HIV will not be an issue of public health importance, and that is what we are looking at by 2030.”
He said he remains concerned about the 29% of the population who do not know their HIV status and the 21% living with HIV who still have not reached the viral suppression stage. He explained that what this means is that this 21% can still transmit the disease to partners and other people.
He argued out that the only way Ghana can reach the 95/95/95 global target is for people to test to find out their status, adding that Ghana is expected to test roughly 1.2 million people every year.
Dr Ayisi Addo said the prevalence of the disease in Ghana is highest among men who have sex with men, with a prevalence rate of 18%; female sex workers, with a prevalence of 4.6%, and those who have STIs, with a prevalence of approximately 12%, according to the last survey done.
The 12% prevalence recorded for those with STIs means that if one has an existing STI, one stands a higher risk of developing HIV, he said.
“This we knew earlier, and that is why our key strategy is to detect and prevent STIs, such as syphilis and chlamydia, and treat them. Because if the person is free from infection, the risk of getting HIV is low,” he explained.
The programme manager mentioned the strategies the Ghana Aids Commission has adopted to get more people to know their HIV status.
These include doing strategic testing, especially among men who have sex with men and female sex workers, as well as testing high-risk men and women, including non-paying partners of female sex workers and wives of homosexuals.
He said the Commission is also carrying out testing at STI clinics, outreach testing and facility testing.
What should be done?
Dr Ayisi Addo called for continuous education on HIV. The Ghana Aids Commission should continue its advocacy, he urged. Non-governmental organisations should play their role in communities, and metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies should use the 1% HIV fund allocated to them on prevention of the disease and other linkage services.
“Let us all work together to fight the stigma and discrimination against Aids,” he concluded, “so that we encourage people to go for voluntary testing and get treatment.
“If we do this, we can achieve our 95/95/95 target.”