What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about innovation for health? DNA tests? Smart phones? How about ponies? In Lesotho, these four-legged vehicles might just be the best idea yet.
Lesotho is a tiny country landlocked within South Africa about the size of Maryland. Its 2 million people live mostly in rural areas. But despite its small size, it has big HIV statistics. One in four adults is HIV-positive, and more than 20,000 people are newly infected each year. Many people live in mountainous areas that are connected to larger towns and cities by a network of winding and unreliable roads.
Small clinics in the mountains serve as crucial outposts for health care. The roads to the mountains, however, are often unusable due to heavy summer rains and winter snowstorms. Clinics consequently can’t order lab tests or receive a reliable flow of drugs and supplies for four months or more every year. HIV patients, who need medication daily, and those seeking to find out their HIV status, can’t wait that long.
To fill this need, USAID supports the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation to collaborate on an innovative way to reach those in need. The Horse Riding for Health program engages local pony riders to transport blood tests, drugs, and supplies between remote mountain health clinics and better-equipped hospitals at sea level. When roads are navigable by two wheels, motorcycle riders join the journey to further speed the process of rushing blood to the lab or medication to those sick with HIV. The transport system allows people to receive HIV test results sooner, access life-saving drugs, and ensure an uninterrupted supply of medication. (See more photos of the horse riders.)
The benefits aren’t limited to individuals receiving care; research shows that faster diagnosis and treatment for HIV leads to fewer future cases in the community. This is partly because the more people know their HIV status, the less likely they are to transmit the disease to others. Especially for pregnant women, learning her HIV status can be the difference between life and death for her baby.
Just a few years ago, even if expectant mothers knew they were HIV-positive, all they could do was hope for the best. In addition to improving transportation systems, USAID and the Glaser Foundation have rolled out comprehensive services to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission throughout Lesotho. Today, 80 percent of mothers have access to treatment and counseling programs that can allow their babies to be born HIV-free. The fight against HIV in Lesotho has been bolstered by strong leadership by Minister of Health Mphu Ramatlapeng as well as active involvement by the community.
To see the Lesotho programs in action, ABC News is featuring two videos on its website and will air a story Friday night on 20/20 for the first in a series of reports on global health. The event will span Good Morning America, World News with Diane Sawyer, Nightline, and 20/20 to showcase innovations in global health as well as the people behind the progress.