Lessons on how PEPFAR can be integrated into a country's own health system

By Porter McConnell
The Maganja da Costa clinic serves a district with more than 260,000 residents. Patients get up early in the morning and walk miles to secure a place in line. To ease the load, PEPFAR funds general health screenings and blood transport, and embeds its s

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The United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, set out in 2003 to put two million HIV-positive people, mostly in Africa, on anti-retroviral medicine. But PEPFAR is also criticized for bypassing even responsible governments and creating a parallel health care system. Oxfam America found that PEPFAR can help strengthen a country's broader health system, at least where the government insists that PEPFAR be integrated into the national health policy.

Oxfam visited the densely populated and poor northern province of Zambezia in Mozambique recently to see how PEPFAR and other US agencies work on the ground. At the sites we visited, we found a close level of collaboration between PEPFAR and the Mozambique Ministry of Health. Over the past two years, the Mozambican government has worked to integrate all donors into its national development plans. Donors like PEPFAR have been asked to make some changes in the way they operate. PEPFAR aid to Zambezia province reflects PEPFAR’s ensuing move to integrate AIDS care into the long-term health system. To fight HIV/AIDS in Zambezia, Population Services International (PSI) implements PEPFAR programs ranging from those preventing the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies during pregnancy, to providing HIV counseling and testing, to preventing HIV through theatre and classroom presentations.

The need

Sixteen percent of the adult population of Mozambique is HIV positive. In some areas, infection rates are as high as 20 percent. In 2000, only 1,000 Mozambicans were on anti-retroviral therapy. PEPFAR programs have increased those numbers to nearly 160,000. PEPFAR funds have also financed care and support for about 800,000 people living with HIV and their families.

The debate

Development experts worry that PEPFAR may not be the kind of program that leads to long-term health and development. PEPFAR is often criticized as the textbook "vertical fund," which bypasses the government and creates a parallel health care system. Critics of these so-called vertical funds have pointed out that foreign aid donors sometimes pour all of their health funding into treatment of one disease. This can have the unintended result of neglecting basic care for the general population and hiring away health care workers from general medicine clinics to HIV clinics, leaving the general medicine clinics understaffed.

Donor resources for HIV have outpaced support for basic health care for all Mozambicans. In 2007, only 3 percent of US foreign aid to Mozambique was for child and maternal health, while 61 percent went to HIV/AIDS. But more people in Mozambique are affected by child and maternal mortality than by HIV, since 15 percent of Mozambican children do not reach their fifth birthday and the mother dies in one out of every 100 births in Mozambique.

Evidence: PEPFAR funds screening for other diseases

In the small town of Maganja da Costa, there is a PSI building next to the government health clinic that used to offer free counseling and testing to people who suspect they have HIV. The building bears a freshly painted sign. The sign used to read "HIV Counseling and Testing," and now it reads "Health Testing Center." At the request of the Mozambique Ministry of Health, PSI has expanded services offered there to include cancer, diabetes, and tuberculosis screenings. The change is a result of a recent Ministry of Health policy of integrating stand-alone HIV "day clinics" into the general health system, including centers funded by donors. Integrating these HIV day clinics into the general health system reduces the stigma attached to getting tested, since it's no longer obvious that if you walk into that building, you are there to test for HIV and HIV only. Making the building a generic testing facility, and not just an HIV one, provides new testing capacity for the government health clinic.

Evidence: PEPFAR places its staff in public clinics

PEPFAR is also working to integrate health care workers into government clinics, rather than hiring away the best staff for separate clinics. PSI has implemented this change on the front lines: its nurses are embedded within government clinics, wearing the same uniforms as government employees and providing the same services.

In the district hospital in urban Quelimane, PEPFAR's contributions to basic health are also on display. There, PSI uses PEPFAR money to fund two nurses and a physician's aide—a big addition to the original staff of eight. PSI also renovated the maternity ward, and Columbia University (using PEPFAR funds) transports blood samples to the lab, which is hours away. Support like this from PEPFAR makes it easier for the clinic to serve the more than 260,000 people depending on it for all their health care needs.

"PEPFAR support actually benefits other areas in the clinic. We now have pre-counseling in addition to testing, which we didn't have before, and we can now test for other sexually transmitted diseases as part of antenatal care because we have additional money for other testing." — Director of Government Clinic, Maganja da Costa

Evidence: It's the Mozambique Ministry of Health calling the shots

When we arrived in one town, PSI insisted that our first destination be the government clinic, where we asked the clinic's director for permission to visit. Visitors can be disruptive, preventing doctors, nurses, and health workers from seeing patients. Asking permission also reminds visitors and nongovernmental organizations that this is the government's clinic and that even though PSI may have outside money, its role is to help the government of Mozambique provide health care and not the other way around.

The lessons

While we heard concerns from international donors based in Maputo that PEPFAR is not fully integrated into the Mozambique Ministry of Health and National AIDS Council, the experience of health care workers in the field appeared to be one of close collaboration and integration. The change is due to two key innovations:

  • The Mozambican government has insisted that donors better integrate their programs into the national health system.
  • PEPFAR has become more willing to integrate its programs into the Mozambican health system, rather than create parallel systems.

PEPFAR's evolving role in Mozambique is a model for other PEPFAR focus countries, particularly the countries that have only just begun to hold donors like PEPFAR accountable to their national health priorities.