JOHANNESBURG — South Africa has made significant gains in the past decade in the fight against HIV/ AIDS. While it still has the largest number of people living with the virus, the country has seen a significant drop in new infections and a decline in the number of HIV/AIDS related deaths.
Sakhiwo Hobo picks up his medicine from the counter and walks away. It only takes him an hour to see a doctor and get his treatment renewed at the Themba Lethu Clinic in Johannesburg, one of the biggest HIV/AIDS centers in South Africa.
Hobo discovered four years ago that he was HIV positive.
"The first thing is shock. Fear of death, even though you're not dying at the moment, but it always is there," he said, explaining what he thought about when he found out. "So it's shock, and fear, and everything. But when you start learning about it, people start taking you through for counseling, then you know what you're dealing with."
Hobo is not an isolated case. And although Hobo was diagnosed early, there is still a stigma in South Africa regarding HIV/AIDS, and this sometimes prevents people from coming early to test, says medical manager Itumeleng Mottoung.
"I think the biggest problem is stigma. Firstly people don't want to test. And once they test, they actually wish the disease away instead of taking the necessary steps of maybe following up to see if they are qualified for treatment," said Mottoung. "So basically it is a problem of stigma."
So to tackle that, the government launched HIV counselling and testing campaigns in public health facilities. In less than two years, some 20 million people have been tested.
Joe Maila, spokeperson for the Ministry of Health, explains the importance of people knowing their status.
"We've realized there is more to be done with people not knowing their status," he said. "Because we think that once you know your status, you'll be able to take extra precautionary measures to make sure that if you do not have HIV at that time, you do not have it. And then if you do have it, then you'll be able to protect people around you."
Protecting people around you applys strongly in the case of pregnant women. In 2005, the rate at which HIV positive mothers transmitted the virus to their baby was of 8.5 percent. Today, it has decreased by threefold, down to 2.7 percent according to the Actuarial Society of South Africa.
This is also due to implementation by the government of wide-scale distribution of antiretroviral drugs, also known as ARV. The goverment says there are nearly two million people taking ARV in South Africa, 10 times more than in in 2005.
It seems a long way from the days when former president Thabo Mbeki was promoting a treatment of beetroot and garlic, or when current president Jacob Zuma said he would take a shower to get rid of the disease. Before them, former president Nelson Mandela himself was slow to acklowledge the scale of HIV/AIDS in the country. South Africa was lambasted by the international community for its lack of action but now seems determined to seriously tackle HIV.
But the South African government's Joe Maila says there are still challenges, especially when it comes to young people and prevention.
"I think we need just to make sure that our young people also take the message seriously. The message of prevention is very important," explained Maila. "Prevention is better than cure. We continue to tell our people that HIV and AIDS do not have a cure, and therefore the best cure is to prevent that from happening."
The struggle is far from being over. Unsafe sex continues to take place. The Mail and Guardian newspaper reports as of 2009, there were still, on average, 935 new HIV infections in South Africa every day and the prevalence of HIV among pregnant women at that time remained at 30 percent.