JOHANNESBURG — As the opening of United Nations International AIDS conference approaches on July 22, the country with the highest number of HIV infections is taking stock of its progress in battling the virus. South Africa is hailing advances in just a few short years, following high-level denial that there even was a problem. But South Africa’s Health Minister says much more needs to be done.
South African health officials say there is very good news, especially in terms of reducing the mother-child HIV transmission, and they are close to meeting their goal of driving down the infection rate to just 2% by 2015.
"The exposure rate amongst infants in 2011 was very similar to the exposure rate in 2010. But the HIV transmission rate by eight weeks post-delivery had dropped from 3.5% in 2010 to 2.7% in 2011, and this is a significant decline in prenatal HIV transmission," said Dr. Ameena Goga of the nation's Medical Research Council.
Major turnaround in approach
After years of downplaying the public health danger posed by the AIDS virus, South Africa aggressively boosted its programs with awareness campaigns, free condoms, AIDS testing for pregnant women and rolling out the world’s largest public sector anti-retroviral drug treatment program for those infected.
But not all the news is good.
South Africa’s Health Minister Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi told reporters Thursday in Johannesburg that 60% of HIV/AIDS patients are female and they must be the focus to stem the epidemic in the country.
"This means that we need to deal more decisively with the structural issues that affect the lives of women and girls in particular. Access to education for young girls, keeping girl children in schools for as long as possible, the employment of women in other ways, are critical in our fight against this epidemic, and our new programs must face in this direction," said Motsoaledi.
Pushing for regular HIV testing
South Africa has made strong strides in a short time after radically changing its approach to AIDS under Motsoaledi's leadership. The previous health minister believed the disease could be handled with homeopathic remedies such as garlic and beetroot. And former president Thabo Mbeki denied the disease was a problem and had banned the use of lifesaving anti-retroviral medicines in public health facilities.
President Jacob Zuma reversed those policies. He also has set an example by submitting himself to several public HIV tests, the most recent of which produced a negative result.
Motsoaledi is urging everyone to seek regular HIV testing in an effort to reduce the epidemic and diminish the disease's stigma.
"Yes, I agree that there has been a problem of stigma around South Africa. But that stigma is reducing. Before that, only 2 million South Africans were testing in any one year. That number increased to 15 million. I told them that I'm testing many times a year, because I'm a human being like them, and I'm a human being, I don't trust myself," said Motsoaledi.
South Africa has the world's largest HIV burden, with more than 5.5 million people living with the disease, which is more than 17% of the population.