KZN’s HIV and TB plan: Good on structure, low on detail

The National Strategic Plan (NSP) for HIV, TB and STIs 2017 – 2022 is supposed to guide South Africa’s response to HIV and TB. While this national plan sets out broad targets and strategies, the implementation of this plan depends on provinces. To this end, each province had to develop a provincial NSP implementation plan (PIP). KwaZulu-Natal’s (KZN) PIP is called the Multi-Sectoral Response Plan for HIV, TB and STIs for KwaZulu- Natal Province 2017-2022 – but in this article we will refer to it just as the KZN PIP.

Broadly speaking, the KZN PIP’s engagement with the governance and consultative structures required to implement a plan like this is refreshingly realistic and shows an awareness of the very real risk that PIPs can become inconsequential processes parallel to existing government planning processes. The plan also does a good job of using data to define the particular problems in the province and flagging, in general terms, the kind of interventions that are required. Unfortunately, the KZN PIP is very low on detail when it comes to implementation – which is deeply disappointing in an implementation plan.

Some context

KZN is at the epicentre of South Africa’s HIV epidemic, if not the world’s. Annual AIDS deaths in the province peaked at 87 000 in 2005 and fell to around 17 000 in 2017. In 2019 there was probably around 15 000 deaths, although there is significant uncertainty regarding the 2019 figures. The decline in AIDS deaths in the province is driven largely by the provision of antiretroviral therapy – in 2005 there were 27 000 people on treatment in the province, today there is around 1.4 million.

One major concern however, is that growth of the HIV treatment programme in the province has slowed significantly in recent years. In 2014 around 230 000 people in the province were newly started on treatment. That number has dropped every year since and is now estimated to be under 100 000.

While AIDS deaths have declined dramatically, the rate of new HIV infections remains stubbornly high in the province. While the estimated 61 500 new infections in 2017 is much better than the 160 000 per year seen around the turn of the century, it is nevertheless high and means that the absolute number of people living with HIV keeps going up. Just over a third of the new infections in 2017 (around 21 000) were in women and girls aged 15 to 24. Around two million people in the province are living with HIV.

The KZN PIP

Probably the most important target in the KZN PIP is to reduce new HIV infections to below 20 000 by 2022 – roughly a third of 2017 levels. Modelling suggests that this very ambitious target will not be met and that by 2022 levels would still be in the high 40 000s. According to the PIP “interventions revolve around expanded and intensified provision of biomedical services, sexual and reproductive health and the provision of pre-exposure prophylaxis to high risk groups.”

While specific mention of PrEP is welcome, the PIP rather confusingly says that PrEP should be provided “as part of a prevention package for the general population and key population groups e.g. sex workers” and elsewhere it refers to providing PrEP to “high risk groups”. Who exactly should be offered PrEP is never made much clearer than this. The plan does not specifically set out to provide PrEP to women and girls aged 15 – 24, as one might expect given the high infection rate in this group. It also doesn’t set any concrete targets or make any meaningful commitments regarding PrEP.

Some might argue about the cost effectiveness of PrEP, but even if the cost-effectiveness case is not as strong as that for say medical male circumcision, one could argue that the state has an obligation to nevertheless provide young women and girls at very high risk of contracting HIV with the means to protect themselves. Either way, if ambitious PrEP targets were rejected based on cost-effectiveness grounds, then the PIP should state that explicitly.

Given the high rate of infection in young women and girls, one would also expect a strong focus on the promotion of safe sex and condom use. As is recognised in the PIP: “While the province achieved its condom distribution targets, these were not adequate when calculated at number of condoms per eligible male.” One would expect such an admission to result in ambitious new condom distribution targets. Maybe more importantly, given the high rates of HIV in young women and girls, one would expect an unequivocal commitment to making condoms available at schools. Yet, while the PIP does not prohibit it, it certainly does not make a strong case for increased condom distribution or making condoms available in schools.

DREAMS and various specific interventions are mentioned, but unfortunately the KZN PIP does not break any new ground in plotting how the province will address HIV infection in young women and girls.

Touches on key issues

Though lacking in detailed planning and concrete commitments, the KZN PIP does nevertheless touch on a lot of the key interventions required at this stage of South Africa’s response to HIV and TB and provides useful district by district breakdowns of some key indicators. It is to be welcomed, for example, that HIV self-testing and same day initiation are both endorsed. With some help and guidance from national or the province, these are issues that districts can run with.

While increased testing is relatively easy to do, many other interventions require the province to play a greater role and for districts to be given more guidance. The KZN PIP could, for example, have set targets for how many adherence clubs would be needed in each of the province’s districts and included an estimate of the additional human and financial resources that would entail. Without such guidance and support from a provincial level, many of the good things mentioned in the KZN PIP might not be implemented, or not be implemented with sufficient ambition. It could be that these issues will happen through other channels, but the PIP should at least contain some thinking on it if it is to meaningfully impact implementation.

The PIP identifies some serious problems in the province’s HIV response. For example, it states that “information indicated that only 55.7% of those on ART had viral loads done”. Identifying and admitting problems like this is positive. It is not clear however from the PIP what will be done to address this problem. Ideally, a serious problem like this would have triggered the commissioning of research to understand why viral load testing rates are so low – and that research would then have been used to inform the PIP.

Reduce TB incidence by 50%

The KZN PIP sets a target of reducing TB incidence by 50% by 2022 when compared to 2017 levels. According to the KZN PIP: “Currently TB incidence is way above the World Health Organisation threshold of 200 per 100 000 population. Earmarked interventions relate to increasing the uptake of TB preventive therapy using various strategies including mass screening.”

The PIPs endorsement of interventions like mass TB screening and intensify contact tracing is to be welcomed. But whereas the intent is good, the lack of actual planning here too is concerning. There is no sign in the KZN PIP of serious engagement with the human resource requirements of expanding screening and contact tracing – and without the people to expand these services the expansion simply won’t happen. We had similar concerns with the NSP at a national level. The explanation then was that this kind of grappling with the nitty gritty of implementation would be addressed in the PIPs.

It is true that the KZN PIP does include a matrix of which departments and sectors or organisations would be responsible for various interventions, but it does not go much further than this. The background is good, the general ideas are good, but in the final analysis there is no real plan to implement.

Serious about structure

Some of the short comings with the KZN PIP outlined above might be explained by the disconnect that often exists between AIDS council and Department of Health planning processes. An AIDS council might set laudable goals, but the Department of Health controls most of the relevant resources. For this reason, the NSP and PIPs should ideally be taken into account in departmental planning processes and budgets. The odd thing is that, unlike most provinces, KZN seems actually to have put some real effort into making these various processes talk to each other. In fact, much of the KZN PIP engages with just this kind of structural problem.

The PIP states: “This plan has to the extent possible incorporated issues relating to HIV, TB and STIs as mentioned in other departmental and sector plans to enhance mainstreaming and multi-sector participation. It further presents a platform for participation in the response by departments and sectors that may not have HIV, TB and STIs activities in their current plan. They should use this plan as a reference document to inform their implementation in line with the departmental mandate. The activities can then be incorporated into departmental strategic plans when the opportunity arises.” And, “The PCA through its secretariat will be required to facilitate the process of ensuring that all departmental plans support the goals and objectives of this plan.”

The above should be in every PIP – with a premier using his or her clout both as premier and head of the PCA to enforce it.

In KZN the Premier has for years been chairing the Provincial AIDS Council and Spotlight sources report that the council meets regularly and is functional. In addition to the PCA, the PIP indicates that the province has 11 District AIDS Councils and 43 Local AIDS Councils. It seems however that leadership at PCA level has not filtered down. The PIP itself states: “While functionality of the PCA was impressive, that of AIDS Councils at the other spheres of government was generally poor especially, at local municipality and ward level. In some cases ward AIDS Committees were non-existent. More broadly all AIDS councils face the challenge of effective stakeholder participation with few stakeholders from different departments, organisations and civil society participating in AIDS councils. This affects governance and mutual accountability of the response.”

The problem of ensuring greater functionality at district or local AIDS council level is certainly not unique to KZN. It is also not something that can be solved in a PIP. For it to be flagged and grappled with in a PIP is welcome.

According to the KZN PIP “6 districts and 21 local municipalities had AIDS coordinators that were exclusively assigned to HIV.” Ideally all districts will have such AIDS coordinators, and all district-level councils will be chaired by mayors.

The plan also shows a good understanding for the fact that health crises of the scale of HIV and TB cannot be stopped by the Department of Health alone. It reads: “Government organisations, non-government organisations, civil society, the private sector, development partners, traditional leadership and the religious sector all have individual and complementary roles in implementing this plan and ensuring delivery.” It is arguably at district and local level that these “individual and complementary roles” are most important. More guidance on how to turn these good intentions into actual shared programmes and shared responsibilities may be useful.

 

No costing and no communications strategy

 

One area that the PIP gives a lot of attention to is communications. It goes as far as to commit that a “comprehensive provincial multi-media HIV, TB and STIs communication strategy will be developed”. This strategy is mentioned time and time again in the PIP in different contexts and in relation to various specific interventions.

The idea of a single communications strategy around HIV and TB in the province is not a bad one. While some HIV communications projects in South Africa have had only limited success, that is not to say that a properly conceived and executed strategy might not be more successful in KZN.

Unfortunately, according to Bonolo Pududu of the HIV and AIDS Directorate in the office of the KZN Premier, by mid-2019 this communications strategy has not yet been developed.

Another concern is that by mid-2019 the KZN PIP, which is a 2017 – 2022 plan, has not been costed. According to Pududu, this is not the province’s responsibility. “The costing of the Provincial Implementation Plans (all provinces) is/was the responsibility of national (i.e. SANAC),” says Pududu. “Initial processes commenced to cost the plans, however, the finalisation of this process is yet to be communicated.”

The PIP refers to a monitoring and evaluation framework document. A draft of this framework was shared with Spotlight. According to Pududu, “final consultations” with “provincial stakeholders” have not yet taken place and the PCA has not yet adopted the framework.

The lack of a costing of the PIP, the fact that the communications strategy has not been developed, and the fact that the M&E framework is only now being adopted are all worrying signs.

Though the KZN PIP is low on detailed plans, there is also some indication that some of the good things in it are not being implemented. Under goal 4 “Social and structural drivers” the PIP sets out to “implement and scale up a package of harm reduction interventions for alcohol and substance use”. Yet, for much of 2018 a needle-exchange programme in Ethekwini was shut down by the authorities, ostensibly because needles were not being disposed of appropriately.

What is to be done

With a new Premier in the province and a new MEC for Health, there is significant potential for change in KZN. The various good things in the PIP can and should be built on.

Ensuring district and local AIDS councils meet and are given sufficient guidance is one urgent priority. Making this happen will require strong political leadership together with clear thinking on what roles district and local AIDS councils can and should play.

A second urgent priority would be to flesh out some of the ideas in the KZN PIP into fully fledged implementation plans. How should new infections in young women and girls be addressed? Should the province embark on a massive scaling up of PrEP for young women and girls? Should there be a new safe sex and condom distribution campaign? Will these campaigns be funded and who will implement them?

Thirdly, whatever revised plan is made must be costed and, if a communications strategy remains central to the plan, then such a plan must be developed. If the PCA and the Premier is serious about the KZN PIP, then they must show that seriousness by executing the plan and integrating it into government planning and service delivery in the province.

Note: The KZN PIP uses estimates from the Thembisa model version 3.2. In this article we use more recent estimates from Thembisa version 4.1.)

 

 

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