South Africa’s new-found energy in response to AIDS has once again thrust the country on to the world centre-stage, thankfully, for sound reasons this time around. Under former president Mbeki and his Health Minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who shunned scientific and medical logic in responding to AIDS, the country became the butt of many jokes worldwide. But new brooms, President Zuma and Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi are sweeping off the mess. For the first time, politicians are embracing scientists in the government’s response to AIDS.
‘We were known to be people who were fighting each other instead of fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS. There is excitement that now we are fighting the disease, not each other. We are speaking with one voice. We’re no longer pointing fingers at each other’, said Health Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, in an interview with Health-e News Service before he left for Vienna.
Motsoaledi said the government’s new approach to HIV and AIDS has elevated the country’s status in the eyes of the world. At the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, which opens today, South African Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, will be the key-note speaker after the opening address by the Austrian head of state. Motsoaledi said the world was ‘keen to hear about South Africa’s accomplishments’.
‘It just shows the level where the world has put South Africa in terms of the fight against this disease. Everybody knows we are the highest-burdened country. We are carrying more HIV than any country, but we are also running the biggest HIV Counselling and Testing Campaign ever established anywhere in the world. The combination of those two gives us this status, and of course, some have just heard that we have turned the corner. They want to hear it from us directly, not just reading it from somewhere’, he said.
But the Health Minister lamented that although government has vastly improved on treatment, we are still lagging behind in preventing new HIV infections, particularly amongst women who are at most risk of HIV infection. Motsoaledi said he prays that results of a study conducted in South Africa testing the efficacy of a microbicide gel based on an antiretroviral drug, Tenofovir, will bring a glimmer of hope to the country’s HIV prevention efforts.
‘We are eagerly waiting for those results. We don’t know what they are showing. I am praying day and night that those results must show something positive to help us turn the corner. I’m just really hoping and praying that the result is something positive that we can start using because for too long we have been doing research. We really need something very urgently’.
The outcome of the study will be one of the highlights the country will export to the Vienna conference when it is released on Wednesday.
Another highlight from South Africa will be the country’s display of the HIV Counselling and Treatment Campaign, a massive government effort to ever be undertaken by any country to encourage its citizens to test for HIV. The campaign seeks to test 15 million South Africans over the next year.
As the world choked in the grip of a recession last year, donor nations and organisations started reducing or cutting aid for AIDS programmes in poor nations. As the recession is lifting, however, these cut-backs still remain. For example, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, the largest single supporter of AIDS treatment in the world through donor funding, has had to reduce grants to poor nations as a result of the funding shortfall. In Vienna, South Africa will lead the call for rich nations to continue supporting the fight against AIDS.
‘Please don’t’, urged Motsoaledi. ‘Those countries that are better off, who have got resources, who are the biggest contributors to Global Fund, please it’s not yet time to stop. We are still in the middle of war. It’s not yet time to stop producing or supplying weapons. The war is still raging. That’s the message that we’re sending to them’, he said.
The conference is the largest single meeting place for every sector in the AIDS field, from the community sector to scientists and researchers, and doctors and policy makers. It takes place every two years and about 25 000 delegates will attend the meeting in Vienna. On day three, Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi will deliver a plenary session address focusing on the theme of Universal Access and Treatment Scale-up.