Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Expansion of antiretroviral treatment to rural health centre level by a mobile service in Mumbwa district, Zambia

Christopher Dube a, Ikuma Nozaki b, Tadao Hayakawa c, Kazuhiro Kakimoto b, Norio Yamada d & James B Simpungwe e

a. Mumbwa District Health Office, Mumbwa, Zambia.
b. International Medical Center of Japan, 1-21-1 Toyama, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.
c. Japan International Cooperation Agency, Tokyo, Japan.
d. Research Institute of Tuberculosis, Tokyo, Japan.
e. Clinical Care and Diagnostics Services, Ministry of Health, Lusaka, Zambia.

Correspondence to Ikuma Nozaki (e-mail: i-nozaki@it.ncgm.go.jp).

(Submitted: 09 February 2009 – Revised version received: 14 January 2010 – Accepted: 24 February 2010 – Published online: 03 September 2010.)

Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2010;88:788-791. doi: 10.2471/BLT.09.063982


Zambia is one of the sub-Saharan African countries worst affected by the HIV pandemic. In 2007, the prevalence rate among adults was approximately 14.3% and there were an estimated 1.5 million HIV-infected people.1,2 In 2004, the government of Zambia declared HIV/AIDS a national crisis and launched a policy of free antiretroviral treatment (ART), that made free ART available in 322 sites.2,3

However, more than half of the population lives in rural areas where there is poor access to ART services.1 Several studies reported that long travel distances are a potential barrier to accessing services and, after starting ART, they are a barrier to optimal adherence.46 To improve accessibility, ART services need to be located as close to the community as possible. Thus, Mumbwa district health management team introduced a mobile ART service at rural health centres as a pilot programme of the Ministry of Health. This paper discusses the uptake of these mobile services in rural Mumbwa.

Local setting

Mumbwa District is one of 72 districts in Zambia, with an area of 23 000 km2 and a population of 167 000. There are 28 public health facilities including a district hospital, as well as a mission hospital and private facilities. Health-care providers in the whole district consist of five medical doctors, 24 clinical officers, 44 nurses and 33 midwives. The district hospital plays a role as a referral hospital for care, support and treatment of HIV. It is equipped with an X-ray machine, a blood cell counter, a biochemistry analyzer, a CD4+ lymphocyte (CD4) counter, a microscopic examination and urinalysis. Rural health centres are usually staffed by only two to four medical professionals such as clinical officers, nurses and/or an environmental health technician. They offer simple examinations such as rapid tests while X-ray examination and most laboratory services including haemoglobin are only available in hospitals.

In 2006, ART services were provided only at Mumbwa District Hospital. The number of clients receiving ART was less than 450 in April 2006, although the number of clients in need of ART was estimated approximately 5000 to 7500.


Mobile ART services commenced at four rural health centres in the first quarter of 2007. Before the implementation of the services, staff members at the four sites attended a 10-day training course in management of ART and optimistic infection conducted by the experienced staff of the district health management team and Mumbwa District Hospital. Lay counsellors and support group members, of whom most are HIV-positive and on ART, were selected from the community and trained in HIV prevention, ART and counselling skills to assist staff members in the rural health centres. Almost daily, lay counsellors gave psychosocial counselling to ART patients in the community, and support group members reminded them of the arrival of the mobile service. Rural health centres were selected as mobile ART sites according to geographical location, coverage population and existing resources including medical staff, space and community activities. A mobile ART team including a medical doctor, clinical officer, nurse, laboratory staff and pharmacist visited the ART sites every two weeks.

Eligibility for the mobile ART services was assessed by either CD4 cell count (for which blood samples were sent to the district hospital laboratory) or clinical symptoms. Eligible patients were monitored in the same manner as the hospital by trained professionals either from the mobile team or ones from the rural health centre depending on staff availability in the health centre. However, complicated cases that could not be treated by the mobile service were transferred to the hospital.

Operational cost for the four mobile ART services expended by the district health management team, which was the only source of funding, was 86 million kwacha per year (approximately 17 000 United States dollars) which included allowances for team members, fuel and motor vehicle services.

Except for those aged less than18 years, client data were collected from the ART registration books at the district hospital and the rural health centres. All clients who were newly enrolled for ART in 2007 were included in the analysis (232 cases in the mobile sites and 458 cases in the district hospital). Conditions of the clients at the 6th month after starting treatment were categorized as “retained at original site”, “lost to follow-up”, “dead” and “transfer out” as treatment outcomes.

Relevant changes

The accumulated number of ART clients from both mobile sites and the district hospital reached 2053 in the second quarter of 2008, accounting for 25% to 40% of the estimated clients in need of ART in the district (Fig. 1). Of those who were newly enrolled up to the second quarter of 2008, 46.6% (578/1295) initiated ART using the mobile services.

Fig. 1. Trends in enrolment of patients on antiretroviral treatment, Mumbwa district, Zambia, 2004–2008
Fig. 1. Trends in enrolment of patients on antiretroviral treatment, Mumbwa district, Zambia, 2004–2008

Average age of ART clients included in the analysis was 38.1 years (standard deviation 10.09) and 60.3% of them were female. There were no differences in the pattern of age and gender of patients attending the district hospital and the rural health centres. However, clients presented at the rural health centres at an earlier stage and with better functional status than those presenting at the district hospital.

Table 1 shows that the percentage of patients “lost to follow up” in the mobile ART sites was lower than at the district hospital. A greater percentage of rural health centre patients died during the study period.


The mobile service increased the number of ART clients in the district probably because it reduced the long distances required to travel to health services in rural areas. This allowed clients to start ART at an earlier stage. Mobile ART services might have encouraged people to seek voluntary counselling and testing before showing symptoms (Box 1).

Box 1. Summary of main lessons learnt

  • Mobile ART services in resource-limited settings can increase the number of ART patients by reducing the need to travel long distances to reach health facilities.
  • Mobile services enable patients to start ART at an earlier stage in their disease when voluntary counselling and testing is located at the same site.
  • Involvement of the community such as lay counsellors and support groups increase the number of patients retained at the original site compared to hospitals, which normally have many referred cases.

There were less transfers and “lost to follow up” patients at the mobile sites during the first six months of treatment. Effective community involvement in rural health centres may have made it easier to educate clients and to prevent loss to follow up. In addition, lay counsellors and community support groups contributed to relieving the shortage of human resources. Retention rates at the first six months of treatment in other studies in African countries vary from 39.2% to 86.7%.7 These compare well with the 69.5–75.9% retention rates we observed in this study.

In contrast, the mortality of patients at mobile sites at the first six months was higher than during the same period at the district hospital. This may be due to misclassification of deaths recorded as “lost to follow-up” at the district hospital.

Other studies have estimated that about 75% of the deaths that occur in the first three months of treatment are due to immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome.8 However, clients using mobile ART sites at an earlier stage of their disease do not incur the same risk of immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome.

This study has some limitations. First, the comparison between mobile ART sites and the district hospital was made in the same period. Clients in the hospital enrolled since the introduction of mobile ART to the rural health centres might have different social demographic characters from the ones enrolled before mobile services were made available. This analysis is, however, important because the resources such as infrastructure, equipment and human resources in the hospital are very different from the rural health centres. Second, details of the treatment outcomes, case management and co-morbidities were not provided. Since the study was done in non-research settings, comparisons such as using CD4 cell counts could not be done.


Mobile ART services involving lay counsellors and support groups seemed to be a beneficial and effective strategy to improve accessibility at health facilities without standardized equipment and human resources. More importantly, other barriers such as stigma and discrimination must be cleared. To our knowledge, this is the first comparison of mobile ART services involving community resources in rural areas with hospital-based services. Further investigation is required to evaluate long-term outcomes including clinical status, adherence and quality of life.


Japan International Cooperation Agency

Competing interests:

None declared.