Community-based HIV screening (or CBS), a program of the Department of Health-National AIDS and STD Prevention and Control Program (NASPCP), is being fast-tracked as an HIV testing service in the Philippines that eyes minimal loss of clients to follow up.
“This is relevant and timely because the HIV testing facilities are not enough to cater to the general population,” said Ico Rodulfo Johnson, president and CEO of The Project Red Ribbon Inc. (TRR). “Some testing facilities are even inaccessible to clients especially in the provinces. (And so) CBS can ultimately screen a greater population through the personal reach or community outreach HIV screening agents (COHSAs) who conduct the outreach services.”
CBS involves HIV screening conducted by a trained layman (i.e. the COHSA) to anybody who wants to be screened outside any HIV facility. Though the focus is – still – largely on key affected populations, anyone who wants to get tested may avail of the HIV testing.
“CBS can be done anywhere – in a room, in a park, in a mall, et cetera. It can be personal or the COHSA can organize a group HIV screening that can be conducted in schools, companies, churches or (in offices of) organizations,” said Johnson. In this way, this approach brings the services to the people, instead of just waiting for these people to go to service centers.
Beyond testing, the program also entails linking or direct assistance and referral to any nearby HIV testing facility to make sure that clients whose result turns out to be reactive be linked immediately to a facility.
In the case of TRR, getting involved with CBS started with a partnership with the DOH-NASPCP and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine-AIDS Research Group (RITM-ARG) in February 2016. These government bodies supervised TRR’s training, starting with individual TRR volunteers and then eventually broadening this to partners from the (now-defunct) Rainbow Barracks and Metropolitan Community Church-Metro Baguio (MCC-MB). Other LGBTQI organizations and HIV organizations were eventually also trained that year; as well as Teleperformance Philippines, a BPO company that started conducting its on-site 24/7 CBS (starting in September 2016, so that now, nurses from its 18 on-site clinics nationwide continue to conduct CBS).
In 2017, volunteers from the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) were also trained; as well as more volunteers from various LGUs from all over the Philippines.
To date, TRR already trained 688 COHSAs.
And to date, TRR has screened 38,780 individuals.
“We’ve covered schools, companies, LGUs, faith-based organizations, LGBTQI organizations and those who came in the TRR office,” Johnson said. Broken down, 966 clients (2.50%) who turned out to be reactive have been linked to care; only four clients (0.0026%) are still pending to care.
Johnson believes that “this program can reach a wider range of population and can help in dealing with the current HIV epidemic in the country. Volunteer COHSAs can now reach populations that have not been reached by peer educators of the different local government units (LGUs) in the country. Also, volunteer COHSAs – since they are laymen – can innovate their techniques in getting clients by getting into various platforms, such as apps, or just reach out to peers to be able to screen clients.”
There continue to be challenges in implementing CBS in the Philippines.
For one, TRR “is dependent on the supply of the HIV test kits from the DOH-NASPCP and the LGUs. If the test kits are unavailable, it poses a challenge to the us.”
Secondly, while TRR provides CBS training for free, “the challenge is the counterpart of its partners (in providing a venue, food, transportation and accommodations to our volunteer trainers). This is quite challenging if the partners come from the provinces.
Thirdly, “even though we have volunteers who have been well-trained trained, we still need to reevaluate these trained COHSAs particularly as they conduct their own CBS.”
And fourthly, perhaps a continuing major challenge, “is that majority of the LGUs don’t want to implement CBS because it has no guidelines yet from the DOH-NASPCP.” The DOH-NASPCP already claimed it is finalizing the same, but this slow process is problematic as other CBS trainings also exist that – when laid bare – actually only eye to profit from the continuing ongoing HIV epidemic in the Philippines (e.g. through week-long trainings that necessitate the spending of a huge amount of money, even if the training can actually be done only in a few hours, thereby wasting valuable resources).
But Johnson said he is not losing hope, as he stresses that CBS can fasttrack the country’s HIV testing services. And so “we will aggressively train individuals or those belonging to different groups so that we can create impact in arresting the HIV epidemic in the country by early HIV screening and testing, and linking people to care as soon as possible.
To avail of TRR’s CBS training, contact (+63) 9064043412.