When we launched Dignitas International in 2004, the 30-fold reduction in the cost of HIV/AIDS treatment had created the possibility to treat and save the lives of millions of patients in the developing world. Dignitas was founded to take advantage of this opportunity and we focused on resolving the next major bottleneck to accessing treatment: weak and understaffed health systems.
In partnership with the Malawi Ministry of Health, we established the Tisungane HIV/AIDS Clinic in Zomba District. Malawi was a nation struggling with a high HIV prevalence rate and one of the weakest health systems in the world. With a life expectancy of 36 years, men and women living with HIV/AIDS were dying young. Babies were being born with HIV simply because their mothers didn’t have access to the treatment that would have prevented transmission.
Knowing that treating HIV/AIDS requires more than just drugs, we trained and mentored health workers and health system managers, we strengthened laboratory services, and we created a more efficient patient referral system. We also developed a community-based model to bring HIV/AIDS services to 25 community health centres across Zomba District, enabling people living in remote and rural areas to access treatment.
In five years, because of access to treatment, communities have been transformed. People have returned to work, are raising their children, and are contributing to the development of their communities. Life expectancy has rebounded to 52 years and continues to rise.
“When we first started, our patients were much sicker. Many of them were starting antiretroviral treatment too late because they couldn’t afford the cost of transport to the hospital. The hospital was just too far,” says Gabriel Mateyu. A Malawian clinician, Gabriel worked directly with health workers to bring HIV/AIDS services to community health centres. “Now, because our patients can get care close to their homes, they are healthy again and able to work and provide for their families.”
In partnership with the Malawi Ministry of Health, we are now implementing our community-based model on a much greater scale. Using the lessons we’ve learned, we’re now expanding our model across five additional districts in Malawi where more than 3.1 million patients – almost a quarter of Malawi’s population – will be able to access HIV testing and treatment at their local community health centres.
Our model for community-based access to treatment is a relatively simple innovation but it has the potential to save millions of lives.