The working sessions of South Africa's first national HIV/AIDS conference opened in Durban Monday, aimed at coordinating efforts at prevention, treatment and research. The conference comes against a backdrop of growing anger against the government for what is widely perceived as its failure to stem the tide of the disease.
Delegates from the government, community organizations and the scientific community got down to work Monday to chart a national plan of action to respond to the AIDS pandemic. But a raging debate about the government's policy on the disease is threatening to obscure their work.
In particular, activists charge that the government has not yet fully implemented a plan to prevent mother-to-child transmissions of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Last year the constitutional court ordered the government to provide a drug called nevirapine to mothers and babies at the time of birth. This treatment prevents mother-to-child transmission in about seventy percent of cases when an HIV positive woman gives birth.
There is also growing anger that the government has failed to provide anti-retroviral drugs at state medical facilities. In addition to improving the quality of life for AIDS patients, the drugs reduce the number of viral cells in the body, enabling patients to live longer.
South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma told delegates the government is currently negotiating international funding for a plan that would offer treatment to AIDS patients. His reassurances were not well received by activist organizations, which say the government has been working too slowly, causing thousands to die unnecessarily.
South Africa has the highest number of HIV-infected people in the world. Some 600 South Africans are believed to die each day from AIDS.