11 September 2009

SA lagging in Aids fight?

Too much talk has left South Africa limping behind the rest of Africa in the battle against Aids, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said.


Too much talk has left South Africa limping behind the rest of Africa in the battle against Aids, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said.

"It's not a secret that we didn't do well," he told a SA National Aids Council (Sanac) summit in Johannesburg. "If the scourge of HIV and TB [tuberculosis] is a snake, the head is South Africa. If you want to kill a snake, you start with the head and it will die."

Motsoaledi said South Africa's slow response to the pandemic was raised at a meeting in New York in June, with UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe.

"He said: 'Look, I've got a message for you. I've met several leaders on Africa and they say that if South Africa doesn't wake up to fight this epidemic, the whole continent will go down.'."

SA ‘wastes time’
Motsoaledi said he had received a similar message from former Botswana president, Festus Mogae, at a summit of African health ministers in Kigali last week.

"Festus Mogae said: 'We can understand the poor statistics in the rest of the region, but how do we explain South Africa, a highly industrialised country?'."

Motsoaledi said South Africa, which has one of the highest Aids rates in the world, wasted too much time "debating" the pandemic. "Many African countries are implementing; South Africa is still debating."

South Africa wanted to reach 80% of the people who needed treatment with antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) by 2011, he said. "That will mean 2.3 million people. At the moment, we have 700 000 [people on ARVs] and the country is already feeling the weight.

"If we were to increase that number to 2.3 million, I mean, that is scary, that is like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen," he said.

But because there was no cure in sight, the key to dealing with the pandemic in the future was to focus on prevention, which was not always that simple.

"We are buying 400 million condoms per annum," the minister said.

Abstinence or condoms for children?
However, there was an ongoing debate over whether condoms should be handed out at schools, or whether the government should preach abstinence from sex to children.

"[We are] debating how moral would it be for us to go there [to schools] and line up kids and give kids condoms... it hasn't been resolved yet, because we are a country that debates."

Also, research showed circumcision could reduce Aids rates, but this was another prevention option that South Africa was still debating, while other African countries were implementing it.

Motsoaledi said he was concerned about a series of articles that appeared in the British medical journal, Lancet, which said South Africa had been hit by four pandemics -– Aids and TB; a high infant mortality rate; lifestyle diseases; and violence and injury.

"They [Lancet researchers] say these four are reaching proportions that are unmanageable," Motsoaledi said.

The latest figures showed 73% of people in South Africa suffering from TB were HIV positive, he said. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who also addressed the Sanac summit, agreed that changes in behaviour were the only way to deal with Aids.

He called on sportsmen and entertainers, who were attending the summit, to use their status to influence people to change their behaviour.

“We emphasise prevention as the most effective weapon in the offensive against HIV/Aids," Motlanthe said. – (Sapa, September 2009)


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HIV/Aids expert

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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