Birth of SHAWG: Sudanese Expatriates Join the Fight Against AIDS in Sudan

Khartoum, 11 August 2008: Sudanese HIV/AIDS specialists who live and work in the UK and South Africa began a venture that could significantly improve the fight against the epidemic in Sudan. On 10 August they launched the London-based Sudan HIV/AIDS Working Group (SHAWG); a voluntary network of healthcare professionals who seek to help roll back the epidemic in the country.

It all started last year, when Dr. Bushra Herieka joined the Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN) project, an initiative launched in 2006 by the UN Development programme (UNDP), with the support of the Netherlands and the UK’s Department for International Development with the aim to bring back to the country the expertise of some 3,426 highly qualified Sudanese professionals living abroad. On October 2007, Dr Hereika , who resides in the UK and works as a consultant in the genito-urinary medicine in Bournemouth, volunteered three weeks to help Sudan National AIDS Control Program (SNAP) improve the quality of clinical services of HIV/AIDS.

During this TOKTEN sponsored visit, Dr. Hereika was granted free access to all medical files in the Ministry of Health and visited a number of medical centers in Um Durman, Basahir, Cober as well as the Al-Ribat Hopital. He was overwhelmed by what he saw and learned during this visit:

“ When I realized that there are some 600,000 HIV cases in Sudan, out of which only 2100 , have access to medical services, I was devastated and kept wondering: where are the 580,000 others? How are they living with HIV? Are they in a way or another spreading it? As there were no answers to many questions, I was overwhelmed by frustration and sadness. I immediately felt that something has to be urgently done.”

Upon his return to the UK, Dr. Hereika shared his knowledge and deep concerns with a number of Sudanese expatriates who are also HIV/AIDS specialists. The latter immediately expressed their readiness to join the fight by transferring their knowledge to their fellow compatriots. On April of this year SHAWG came to existence and a website was launched:

“We want to arm Sudanese health workers across Sudan with the necessary knowledge to tackle the epidemic in the best possible way. We hope that more Sudanese and non –Sudanese would join us in this life-saving fight.” said Dr. Hereika whose call did not go unheard. He was joined by Dr Zahir Babiker, a specialist in infectious diseases and virology in Manchester, Dr. Hamad Abdelhadi a specialist in infectious diseases in Newcastle, and Dr. Abdel-Kareem Elgoni, consultant for Health System Trust in South Africa’s capital Johannesburg.

The 4 men joined the TOKTEN initiative as HIV/AIDS advisors. They volunteered three weeks during which they collectively trained over 60 Sudanese clinicians from 15 northern states on how to better screen, diagnose and treat people living with HIV. The training was conducted in partnership with SNAP and WHO, and funded through the UNDP managed Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria grants. These total of these grants amount to $ 32,5 million over the 2005-2008.
The 4 expatriates are now outlining a plan including recommendations to improve the HIV care and treatment services especially in the areas of human resources development; HIV quality control; patients monitoring and follow-up; service promotion and scale up in the health care settings. SNAP counts on this initiative to strategically address the human resources capacity in Sudan and bridge the existing gaps in knowledge and skills in the country.

“Although Sudan has made big strides in dealing and talking about HIV, the issue is still very sensitive. For us, for doctors, and for any patient, it makes a huge difference to have Sudanese experts as HIV advisors. People trust them because they speak the same language, they know the cultures and have no other objective but to help. We are grateful to the TOKTEN initiative for helping us tap into the knowledge and expertise of Sudanese expatriates”, said Mr. Mohamed Abdel Hafeez, Director of SNAP.

Indeed unlike many counties in the region, instead of denying the existence of the epidemic, Sudan decided to face it. The country’s religious leaders are in favour of the use of condoms. According to SNAP, 94 free Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centres, 35 HIV/AIDS care and treatment centres have been established and equipped across 15 northern states, in addition to 7 prevention mother-to-child transmission centres. However, so far only 2,100 HIV/AIDS patients have been tested and are receiving free antiretroviral treatment kits that are worth 35 dollar in the Sudanese market and cover a one month treatment.

Through the UNDP managed Global Fund resources, HIV sophisticated equipment are being procured, but setting up HIV services requires an expertise that is not often available in the country. SHAWG with the assistance of UNDP and SNAP, are helping bridge the capacity gap. TOKTEN project covers the travel and living expenses for any highly qualified professional expatriate who fulfils the selection criteria outlined in the project’s web page ( )

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