Community Health Workers for ART in Sub-Saharan Africa: Learning from Experience – Capitalizing on New Opportunities

Journal Article
  • Katharina Hermann
  • Wim Van Damme
  • George W. Pariyo
  • Erik Schouten
  • Yibeltal Assefa
  • Anna Cirera
  • William Massavon
Human Resources for Health
7 (31) (2009). doi:10.1186/1478-4491-7-31.

Low-income countries with high HIV/AIDS burdens in sub-Saharan Africa must deal with severe shortages of qualified human resources for health. This situation has triggered the renewed interest in community health workers, as they may play an important role in scaling-up antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS by taking over a number of tasks from the professional health workers. Currently, a wide variety of community health workers are active in many antiretroviral treatment delivery sites.

This article investigates whether present community health worker programmes for antiretroviral treatment are taking into account the lessons learnt from past experiences with community health worker programmes in primary health care and to what extent they are seizing the new antiretroviral treatment-specific opportunities.

Based on a desk review of multi-purpose community health worker programmes for primary health care and of recent experiences with antiretroviral treatment-related community health workers, we developed an analytic framework of 10 criteria: eight conditions for successful large-scale antiretroviral treatment-related community health worker programmes and two antiretroviral treatment-specific opportunities.

Our appraisal of six community health worker programmes, which we identified during field work in Ethiopia, Malawi and Uganda in 2007, shows that while some lessons from the past have been learnt, others are not being sufficiently considered and antiretroviral treatment-specific opportunities are not being sufficiently seized.

In particular, all programmes have learnt the lesson that without adequate remuneration, community health workers cannot be retained in the long term. Yet we contend that the apparently insufficient attention to issues such as quality supervision and continuous training will lead to decreasing quality of the programmes over time. The life experience of people living with HIV/AIDS is still a relatively neglected asset, even though it may give antiretroviral treatment-related community health worker programmes better chances of success than their predecessors and may be crucially important for adherence and retention in large-scale antiretroviral treatment programmes.

Community health workers as a community-based extension of health services are essential for antiretroviral treatment scale-up and comprehensive primary health care. The renewed attention to community health workers is thus very welcome, but the scale-up of community health worker programmes runs a high risk of neglecting the necessary quality criteria if it is not aligned with broader health systems strengthening. To achieve universal access to antiretroviral treatment, this is of paramount importance and should receive urgent attention. 

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