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Volunteers Form Crucial Link in Care For South African AIDS Patients - 2002-07-11

In sub-Saharan Africa, much of the care given to people suffering from AIDS is done by faith-based organizations. One of those groups represented at the international AIDS conference in Barcelona is the Sizanani Village Trust from South Africa. The group relies heavily on volunteers to care for the sick.

Thembeka Veronica Lingani trains volunteers for Sizanani, which is part of the St. Joseph's Care Center in South Africa's Gauteng Province.

"We are running four programs. We are running the palliative care from the hospice. We are running home-based care and, we are based in four villages around Sizanani," she said. "In each village we have volunteers. Each volunteer is looking after ten households. But in each house you may find there is more than one patient."

The other programs provide volunteer training and community-based care.

Sizanani volunteers not only care for HIV-AIDS patients, but those terminally ill with tuberculosis and cancer. Ms. Lingani says a lack of anti-retroviral drugs means the death toll from AIDS is rising steadily.

"It is extremely bad, extremely bad. We are experiencing, small as we are, a minimum of four deaths a week from people who are HIV positive, age group between 25 and 40," he said. "And it is mostly young women at the peak of their productive lives."

Ms. Lingani blames the lack of drugs squarely on the government of South African President Thabo Mbeki.

A number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the conference, including the Treatment Action Campaign and Doctors Without Borders, also have criticized the South African government for "dragging its feet" on providing the medicines.

"To access treatment, triple combination [therapy] to our patients, is a serious problem because the government has not come out with a clear policy that we make it accessible for the people," she said. "And they are not prepared to be committed about generics, which are working out to be far more affordable and easily accessible for the people."

The South African government and NGOs have engaged in numerous legal battles in recent years over providing treatment. On July 5, South Africa's Constitutional Court ruled that the South African government must implement a national program to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

The Sizanani Village Trust cares for about 2,000 people a year. Ms. Lingani says volunteers make more than 300 home visits a month. "We have got two types of volunteers, those who are working with orphan children [and] we have got those who are working with people at home," she said.

The home care includes bathing and feeding patients, dressing wounds, dealing with diarrhea, and providing oral rehydration therapy for those suffering from dehydration.

Despite the work, Ms. Lingani says it is not difficult to get volunteers. The group currently has 20. But she says they must be willing to work at any time of the day.

She says without the work of churches and non-government organizations, the South African government would be overwhelmed by HIV-AIDS.