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About the Author

Tiziana Cauli
Journalist (London, UK)

I am a London-based Italian journalist currently covering the property market in Europe, but with a strong background and interest in development issues. I graduated in a post-degree school of journalism in Milan (Italy) and hold a Ph.D. in African Studies. I worked as a journalist in South Africa, Italy, France and Spain and am fluent in Italian, English, Spanish and French.

Post

South Africa: from beetroots to effectiveness in the fight against HIV/AIDS

Published 26th April 2010 - 12 comments - 10069 views -

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

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.


Category: Health | Tags: un, un, hiv, aids,


Comments

  • Lara Smallman on 26th April 2010:

    Really interesting Tiziana. A great step forwards for Zuma to become involved in such an active way. It’s also great to hear the one third target by 2011. That’s not far off. How long will it be before everyone is tested?


  • Tiziana Cauli on 26th April 2010:

    Thank you for your comment Lara. It is a great step forward, for Zuma and for South Africa.

    I think that the 15-million test target by June 2011 is already very ambitious. I was reading articles with inerviews to experts (here’s one: http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-04-23-finally-the-right-hiv-tactic) and they seem to think that this is an ideal goal, not even very realistic. So I guess one cannot even try to predict how long it would take to test the entire population.

    This strategy, though, at least according to experts, is the best the government could come up with, as it aims at filling the gap between the huge dimensions of South Africa’s antiretroviral programme (the largest in the world) and its relatively low impact on the growth of the epidemic and on its effects.

    This happens because people discover their status and start treatment at a late stage or they do not get tested at all. So it’s good to put the focus on testing and counseling, and to raise awareness against stigma.


  • Hanna Clarys on 27th April 2010:

    Are they also going to do something to make the price of the medication go down, so that those who are tested and came out to be HIV positive, can actually buy them?


  • Tiziana Cauli on 27th April 2010:

    Hi Hanna,
    the problem here is availability. Patients who are enrolled in the national ARV programme do receive treatment free of charge. But budgetary problems have already caused shortages of antiretroviral drugs in the past years and this new testing and counseling programme will certainly increase the financial burden on the health department. I am probably not the right person to answer technical questions on this issue though. It would be great if any health expert in this platform could comment on this.


  • Aija Vanaga on 28th April 2010:

    The caricature is so damn good. It express a lot. And post is valuiable too smile


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 28th April 2010:

    I just hope he stopped believing a shower can help prevent HIV/AIDS. And hopefully he won’t beat Dr Beetroot in fantasies.


  • Tiziana Cauli on 28th April 2010:

    I guess he can remain personally convinced of whatever theory he has as long as his government implements proper policies against HIV/AIDS. His country may deserve a much better president but - amazingly enough - he’s doing better than Mbeki when it comes to HIV.

    @Aija: thanks smile


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 28th April 2010:

    To “as long as his government implements proper policies against HIV/AIDS”, Tiziana, I would add “and as long as he keeps his opinion to himself and does not make it publicly known”.

    Cause one can never know… Maybe some people’d really believe their leader, people whom the right policies hadn’t reached.

    P.S. Great research!


  • Tiziana Cauli on 28th April 2010:

    I totally agree with you on that. I should have mentioned it. Thanks!


  • Hieke van der Vaart on 29th April 2010:

    Good news! Another prevention measure that started this month: the circumcision of 2.5. million men in the province of KwaZulu Natal.
    According to the WHO, circumcision reduces the risk of contracting HIV.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/health/policy/26safrica.html?pagewanted=all


  • Tiziana Cauli on 29th April 2010:

    Hi Hieke,
    yeah, that’s really good. I only hope this enthusiasm does not just fade away at the first obstacle. These are pretty overwhelming challenges for South Africa and trouble will arise soon. This kind of committment though is something I hadn’t seen in several years and it’s a good sign.


  • Hanna Clarys on 30th April 2010:

    Hieke, hopefully those men who have been circumcised do not think they are totally safe now.


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