Thousands of AIDS experts have gathered in South Africa, seeking to forge a consensus on ways to combat the virus that afflicts an estimated five million people in the country. The third National AIDS Conference is the first major AIDS gathering since the South African government set ambitious new goals in the fight against the disease. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from Johannesburg.
The National AIDS Conference being held in the southeastern city of Durban is being held several months after the South African government launched a new five-year plan setting aggressive goals in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Conference Chairperson Olive Chisana of the country's Human Sciences Research Council says the aim of the conference is to forge agreement on how to implement these goals. "We all realize how big the HIV epidemic is in South Africa and if we do not have consensus on prevention, treatment and care we are unlikely to make a difference," said Chisana.
An estimated 11 percent of all South Africans are living with HIV/AIDS, the second highest number in the world after India.
AIDS activists for years criticized the South African government for downplaying the severity of the epidemic and the need for aggressive programs to fight it.
But now, most are praising the government's new plan that aims to reduce the number of new infections by 50 percent in five years and increase the number of HIV victims receiving anti-AIDS drugs from 250,000 to one million.
Chisana says the new plan has created a positive climate among government officials, scientists, civic groups and donors. The focus of this week's meeting will be on how to implement it. "The National Strategic Plan said [showed] to us what are the interventions that we can implement. The consensus declaration that we are hoping to get out of the meeting is, how do you go about implementing some of those areas that we have agreed upon," added Chisana.
She says priorities include finding ways to encourage more people to be tested for HIV, the role of male circumcision in reducing HIV infection and new technologies to prevent HIV transmission.
Other topics of discussion are whether HIV-infected mothers should breast-feed their babies and how to minimize the side-effects of anti-retroviral drugs that fight AIDS.
Experts hope that building a consensus on implementation of the plan will help address other major challenges such as the lack of material and human resources needed to treat and care for the country's five million HIV victims.