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South African HIV/AIDS Summit Begins Thursday - 2002-06-24

The Treatment Action Campaign, South Africa's main labor federation and an AIDS activist group, is hosting a national conference on the treatment of HIV and AIDS. Organizers hope the meeting can unite civil society and government around a strategy for fighting the disease.

The three-day HIV/AIDS meeting begins Thursday in Durban. Organizers are billing it as the most inclusive meeting on HIV and AIDS ever held in South Africa. They are expecting more than 750 delegates from every part of the country, representing both urban and rural areas.

"We're going to be bringing together a very diverse and unusual group of people and trying to use 48 hours of discussion to put together the components of what we are calling a national treatment plan," said Mark Heywood, spokesman for the Treatment Action Campaign.

"The idea that we have for a national treatment plan is that HIV is so serious in this country that there has to be a dedicated plan, with budgets, with time frames, with key objectives," he continued, "and that plan needs to be implemented and to be begun as soon as possible."

Mr. Heywood says that the plan will include everything from better strategies to prevent HIV infection to better management of opportunistic infections, to the eventual distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in public hospitals.

The other co-sponsor of the meeting is the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The event will bring together trade unionists, AIDS activists, health workers, non-government organizations (NGOs), religious groups, scientists and business leaders. There also will be delegates from Brazil, where the government makes and distributes its own generic versions of anti-AIDS drugs.

COSATU spokeswoman Joyce Phekane says one of the main goals is unifying civil society so they can work with government on the national strategy. She says South Africa can learn from Brazil's experience.

"We were in Brazil earlier this year, and we understood that the government in Brazil is not working alone," Ms. Phekane said, "They are working together with civil society, NGOs to get together and bring something else that will assist government, in terms of government not being the sole provider of the treatment for HIV and AIDS."

More than one of every nine South Africans is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Conference organizers say South Africa's government is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on AIDS every year, without a comprehensive treatment strategy.

They say careful planning can help the government put that money to better use, saving the lives of many South Africans and allowing them to live longer, more productive lives.