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South Africa Assesses Progress in Fight Against AIDS

  • Scott Bobb

The silhouette of an 18-year-old South African orphan, whose mother died of AIDS when he was 14 (file photo)

The silhouette of an 18-year-old South African orphan, whose mother died of AIDS when he was 14 (file photo)

International AIDS Day provides an opportunity to examine the efforts to combat the deadly virus that attacks the human immune system. In South Africa, whose 5.7 million HIV victims make it the most affected country in the world, officials and activists are assessing an ambitious campaign launched by the government on AIDS Day (Dec 1st) last year.

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma one year ago announced what he called a new era in his government's fight against the HIV/AIDS virus.

"To take our response a step forward, we are launching a massive campaign to mobilize all South Africans to get tested for HIV. Every South African should know his or her HIV status."

Mr. Zuma said 15 million people would be tested for HIV in the next year, treatment programs would be expanded and a major prevention campaign would be launched.

He also called for a change of attitude toward the disease. "Let there be no more shame, no more blame, no more discrimination and no more stigma. Let the politicization and endless debates about HIV and AIDS stop," said Zuma.

This represented a dramatic shift in policy from the previous government (of Thabo Mbeki) which downplayed the seriousness of the epidemic. Critics said it caused hundreds of thousands of needless deaths.

AIDS activist Mark Heywood is deputy chairman of South Africa's National AIDS Council. He says nearly four million people have been tested in the past eight months and the number of people receiving treatment has doubled.

"There are many, many positives. But having stressed the positives I also want to say that HIV remains a massive challenge for this country," he said.

Heywood says HIV prevalence in South Africa has stabilized but deaths and new infection rates are largely unchanged. He blames this on a lack of resources, determination and planning.

The United Nations issued a report last week saying that, nevertheless, progress is being made across Africa where two-thirds of all HIV victims live.

The report said that in the past decade (2001 - 2009) new infections and deaths continent-wide had declined by 25 percent.

South African Deputy-Health Minister Gwen Ramakgopa called it significant progress.

"We are encouraged that particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, including in our country South Africa, we are seeing the dawn of a new era where we are starting to halt the epidemic and indeed we need to consolidate our efforts so that we can get into a phase of the reversal," she said.

But UNAIDS Regional Director Sheila Tlou said the battle was not over and warned against complacency.

"Even though the number of HIV infections is decreasing, there is still a need for prevention, because there are two new HIV infections for every one person that is put on HIV treatment," said Tlou.

Heywood believes the global fight against HIV is at a pivotal point. "Many gains of the last decade have been driven by activism, by people with HIV standing, making themselves seen, making themselves heard, by HIV being cast as a moral issue globally, as an issue of inequality. But I fear that approach has run out of steam, not that it has run out of legitimacy," he said.

Activists say global politics and economics are more complex now and they fear a loss of momentum and political commitment along with a decline in funds due to the ongoing financial crisis.