04 April 2014

South Africa celebrates ten years of free HIV treatment

It may have been a struggle to implement, but South Africa has been giving away free ARV's for over a decade.

Over the past 10 years South Africa has developed the largest HIV treatment program in the world, with over 2.4 million people regularly receiving the life-saving medication so far.

The result of this is markedly increased life-expectancy and much lower levels of mother-to-child transmission rates of the illness.

All of this nearly didn't happen, though. Free ARV treatment was the subject of a protracted battle between AIDS activists and the Government, Former President Thabo Mbeki and Health Minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang in particular. A study in Psychology Today estimated that 300 000 people died as a result of AIDS-denialism on the part of the government.

Read: Health minister introduces colourful condoms

In April 2004, the government conceded and the rollout of free ARV's began. Nowadays 3 in 10 ARV-taking people worldwide are in South Africa and the program has driven the country to the forefront in HIV research.

The battle against HIV/AIDS is, however, far from over. One of the reasons South Africa treats the most people with the illness is because we also have the most people with the illness. The most recent estimate claims that over 6 million South African's, or 12.2% of the population, are currently living with HIV. 

Read: Sex in SA: Unfaithful and unsafe

The prevalence of the illness is much higher in women, especially in the 15-49 age group (23%) than in males (14.5%).

The challenge facing South Africa now that treatment is widely available is to ensure it reaches as many of these 6 million infected citizens as it can. Testing is still poorly adhered to, especially amongst men, and this enables the disease to continue to spread. 

Additional problems such as the inability of the Gauteng and KZN governments to pay their pathology services are suggestive of a more systematic issue relating to SA's health system and one that could be much harder to fix.

Read more:
How is HIV diagnosed?
5 myths about HIV/AIDS
HIV and cancer

Sources: Health-e/Cape Times/Psychology Today

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