Investment in HIV/AIDS programs: does it help strengthen health systems in developing countries?

Global Health. 2008 Sep 16;4:8. doi: 10.1186/1744-8603-4-8.


Background: There is increasing debate about whether the scaled-up investment in HIV/AIDS programs is strengthening or weakening the fragile health systems of many developing countries. This article examines and assesses the evidence and proposes ways forward.

Discussion: Considerably increased resources have been brought into countries for HIV/AIDS programs by major Global Health Initiatives. Among the positive impacts are the increased awareness of and priority given to public health by governments. In addition, services to people living with HIV/AIDS have rapidly expanded. In many countries infrastructure and laboratories have been strengthened, and in some, primary health care services have been improved. The effect of AIDS on the health work force has been lessened by the provision of antiretroviral treatment to HIV-infected health care workers, by training, and, to an extent, by task-shifting. However, there are reports of concerns, too - among them, a temporal association between increasing AIDS funding and stagnant reproductive health funding, and accusations that scarce personnel are siphoned off from other health care services by offers of better-paying jobs in HIV/AIDS programs. Unfortunately, there is limited hard evidence of these health system impacts. Because service delivery for AIDS has not yet reached a level that could conceivably be considered "as close to Universal Access as possible," countries and development partners must maintain the momentum of investment in HIV/AIDS programs. At the same time, it should be recognized that global action for health is even more underfunded than is the response to the HIV epidemic. The real issue is therefore not whether to fund AIDS or health systems, but how to increase funding for both.

Summary: The evidence is mixed - mostly positive but some negative - as to the impact on health systems of the scaled-up responses to HIV/AIDS driven primarily by global health partnerships. Current scaled-up responses to HIV/AIDS must be maintained and strengthened. Instead of endless debate about the comparative advantages of vertical and horizontal approaches, partners should focus on the best ways for investments in response to HIV to also broadly strengthen the primary health care systems.