KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Peggy Nkonyeni and her senior managers made history yesterday when they became the first provincial leaders to take public HIV tests.
Nkonyeni said she and her team had decided to lead by example at yesterday’s launch of a huge provincial HIV testing campaign, which is being run in partnership with the country’s biggest radio station, uKhozi FM.
Yesterday was a very difficult day for the MEC as it was the first anniversary of the death of her 16-year-old son, Monde.
‘I thought I wasn’t going to work on this day, but AIDS is claiming so many lives and affecting so many families that I decided I must be here,’ she said.
Nkonyeni was calm before her test at Wentworth Hospital, saying that she had ‘tested for HIV several times’ in the past.
However, while the press was allowed to watch nursing assistant DG Mbizo pricking Nkonyeni’s finger to get the blood needed for the rapid test, we were asked to leave before the results showed up on the test kit.
‘It is important that people get the message that the result of your test is private and will remain confidential,’ said Nkonyeni.
She said she was ‘embarrassed’ that so few people had been tested for HIV. Of the over 10 million people live in KwaZulu-Natal, a mere 0.3% of people tested for HIV between April 2005 and March 2006.
Yet KwaZulu-Natal has the highest HIV rate in the country, followed closely by Gauteng. Over 40% of pregnant women test HIV positive and an estimated 16.5% of all residents are living with HIV, and some 15% of Gauteng residents are living with HIV.
Health experts agree that the earlier a person knows their HIV status, the better, as those who are negative can then take steps to ensure that they stay that way, while those who are positive can learn to live healthily and get help as soon as they need it.
‘We invite every citizen to make a responsible decision and to know their HIV status,’ said Nkonyeni. ‘Knowledge is power. Testing is not a complicated exercise.
Testing negative means you can prevent getting HIV. Testing positive is not a death sentence. Help is at hand.’
Nkonyeni added that while her department was doing very well in its provision of antiretroviral medication for those with HIV ‘we have been focussing on ARVs and not on voluntary HIV testing and counselling’.
‘We especially want the men to come forward to be tested because most of the people who test for HIV are pregnant women,’ said Nkonyeni.
Joining Nkonyeni for the test were five top managers in her department, Dr Busi Nyembezi, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, Leon Mbangwa, GE Mkhize and Zama Ndlovu.
Ethekwini deputy mayor Logie Naidoo, senior managers of SABC’s uKhozi FM and MPLs from the province’s health portfolio committee also took HIV tests.
‘We lack unity in the fight against AIDS,’ said Naidoo. ‘We need to stop debating and intellectualising about the disease and take the message about HIV and AIDS to all our people.’