Why Engaging Traditional Leaders is Vital for the Success of STAR

The UNITAID/PSI HIV Self-Test Africa (STAR) consortium were joined by Ministry of Health representatives from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, as well as PSI Global Ambassador Debra Messing, last week in Blantyre, Malawi. The team learned firsthand how making HIV testing easier and more accessible can lead to getting people on treatment sooner.

We met with traditional leaders and community gate-keepers of ten rural villages throughout Neno District — one of three districts within Malawi where the STAR project is currently being implemented — whose support is vital for the success of this initiative. It is with their support that community-based distribution agents, like 19 year old Henry Makahsu, are able to educate their neighbors about the importance of knowing their HIV status as well as provide them with kits to test themselves in the privacy of their homes.

Henry CBDA Jonathan Village Chifunga

Henry, 19, is a community based distribution agent who goes from household to household demonstrating to community members how to use HIVST kits. Photo courtesy of PSI

Traditional leaders and community gate-keepers are not immune to the issues that face their communities. They are parents, neighbors, and friends to many. By supporting a program such as STAR, village leaders are ensuring their communities have the resources they need to live healthier lives.

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Traditional Authority, Charles Chibisa, oversees ten villages that fall within the area served by the STAR project. Along with the other village headmen, he advocates for increased support of HIVST programs and treatment options. Given their status within Malawian society, these leaders have the potential to influence their national Ministries of Health.

Traditional Authority Chifunga

When we remove the barriers stopping people from knowing their HIV status, we help fast track treatment, reduce stigma and enable people to live healthy and productive lives.

As stewards of their communities, traditional leaders and community gate-keepers expect to see results from community-based programs like STAR. PSI and our partners are looking forward to providing these critical stakeholders with the evidence that STAR is effective, efficient and capable of large-scale implementation.

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Rates of new HIV infections have been steadily declining since 2001, however there is still much work to be done to achieve the ultimate goal of no new infections. It is important to work with these traditional leaders, not just for current generation but also the next.