South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma is not HIV positive, and this is good news, at least for him and for those who have engaged in sexual activities with him. The fact that he publicly disclosed his HIV status is also good, as stigma and discrimination still discourage many from getting tested and they add to the burden of HIV-positive South Africans in a country with the highest number of HIV-infected people in the world – 5.7 million over a population of 48 according to the United Nations.
But there is some other very good news which is worth mentioning here and which happens to be closely related to Zuma’s revelation, which was made on Sunday in support of a government campaign. South Africa has launched a new HIV/AIDS programme which aims at testing one third of the South African population – nearly 15 million people – by June 2011.
AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam
Coordinated by the South African National Aids Council (Sanac), the campaign was planned since last year before it could be finally kick-started. Its targets are so ambitious that about 2,000 retired medical and pharmaceutical staff were called to work in the programme as volunteers along with 9,000 lay-counselors from different NGOs.
Of course it is still too early to tell whether the HIV Counseling and Testing Campaign (HCT) will achieve its goals. Its implementation will certainly pose some practical and financial challenges for an already overwhelmed and understaffed health system which will have to deal with an increased number of patients in need of antiretroviral treatment and counseling.
It will be difficult to meet the target of 15 million new tests in just over a year, and it will be even more difficult to provide the necessary assistance and support to those who will test positive. This is despite the government’s 7.3billion rand (about $1billion) investment in Aids response this year. And despite the fact that, according to Sanac chief executive Nono Simelela the government has asked for the support of international aid giants and donors such as USAid, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
But the South African government’s engagement in the HCT campaign is a tangible sign of a very significant change of attitude which will certainly help saving lives.
Only four years ago, speaking in court after he was charged with rape, Zuma admitted he did not wear a condom during his sexual intercourse with the HIV-positive woman who had accused him, but said he had reduced the risk of becoming infected by taking a shower right afterwards.
Now he is publicly speaking against stigma and calling for a better “knowledge and understanding of the epidemic.” He even announced a major change in the government’s HIV/AIDS policy when on World Aids Day (December 1) 2009 he said that, starting from April 2010, all HIV-positive babies would be treated in public health structures and women would start receiving assistance at an earlier stage of their pregnancies in order to avoid transmission at birth.
Under Zuma’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki, the South African government was harshly criticized by scientists, doctors and advocacy leaders across the world for repeatedly denying the seriousness of the HIV/AIDS threat in the country.
Former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was known as Dr Beetroot due to her infamous promotion of root vegetables as natural remedies against the effects of HIV/AIDS. Her current successor Aaron Motsoaledi defined HIV/AIDS in South Africa as “a very serious pandemic, the biggest in the world” and said that the country had to deal with it.
In a column which was published in the past days by South African newspaper The Mail & Guardian, Michel Sidibé, the executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids), said that South Africa is showing clear signs of responsibility and enthusiasm in the fight against HIV/AIDS. A fight which the country could lead at a global level.
“I believe that South Africa can break the trajectory of the Aids epidemic – in Africa and globally. It is also its duty,” Sidibé wrote. Africa and the world can only hope he is right.