October 28, 2006

South Africa revises AIDS policy

The South African government has announced a dramatic reversal of its approach to the country's HIV/Aids crisis, promising increased availability of drugs and endorsing the efforts of civic groups battling the disease. "We must take our fight against Aids to a much higher level," Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka told a conference of Aids activists. "We must tighten up so that ARV [antiretroviral] drugs are more accessible, especially to the poor. Education and prevention of HIV infection must be scaled up. Our people want us to unite on this issue in the best interests of the health and wellbeing of our nation. Working together we can defeat this disease," she said to cheers from a crowd of health professionals, church leaders and labour officials.

Experts said the government's policy change could save thousands of lives. An estimated 5,4-million of South Africa's 47-million people are infected with HIV, one of the highest ratios in the world. After a 2003 court ruling, the government reluctantly rolled out a public programme to make ARV drugs available to people with Aids. About 200 000 people receive the government drugs, making the public programme one of the biggest in the world. But they are reaching just one quarter of the estimated 800 000 in need.

In her speech, Deputy Minister of Health Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was frank about the government's progress on fighting the disease. She said while "tremendous efforts" are being made and resources invested to fight HIV/Aids, there are still unacceptably high levels of new infections and deaths. While a lot of money has gone into condom distribution, the impact this is making is not known. The implementation of programmes to prevent mother-to-child transmission has been "most uneven". Some provinces showed positive trends while others had performed dismally, she said. A high teenage pregnancy rate also revealed the "huge challenge" of changing the behaviour of young people she said and added that the strain resulting from a growing burden of disease and staff shortages would also require honesty in speaking about problems. These included a shortage of doctors, nurses and pharmacists, infrastructure problems and collaboration with other departments - particularly correctional services. She also said that the government was "very clear" that nutrition could not replace medicines, but was interested in learning how alternative remedies could help fight opportunistic infections. "We have started the process of putting these so-called remedies under scientific scrutiny."

Supporters of the ruling African National Congress such as trade unions had before criticised the President’s policies and the resulting shortages of antiretroviral drugs. Civic groups were joined by 81 leading scientists in demanding the sacking of the health minister who suggested eating beetroot as a cure. And South Africa has fallen behind its neighbours in cutting the infection rate. (The Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg)

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