Hatchet buried in Aids fight

Aids workers and civil society groups in the country said they would now work hand in hand with the government to combat the disease, which has become one of South Africa’s most severe challenges.

The pledge has brought an end to years of discontent between the two parties during which the NGOs have vehemently opposed the government’s “inadequate” efforts on fighting the disease.

Their concern has largely been that the government has not done enough to combat the disease, which the United Nations says is responsible for between 600 and 800 deaths in the country every day.

South Africa has one of the highest Aids infection rates in the world.

Of the country’s total population of 45 million, 5.5 million people are believed to be infected with the epidemic.

In recent years, Aids workers and other non-government groups working in HIV/Aids have harshly criticised the government’s stance on the HIV/Aids.

They say the government has employed a policy of “Aids denial”, which has resulted in several deaths that could have been prevented.

For most of this year, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and other organisations and scientists working in the field of HIV/Aids have lobbied for the “urgent removal or resignation” of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang, who many in the field believe is the wrong person to lead the country’s HIV/Aids battle.

Tshabalala Msimang has persistently advocated nutritional and traditional treatment methods for HIV and Aids to complement ARVs, a stance that has not been well taken by local international Aids workers.

They said the government needed to focus more on developing its anti-retroviral roll-out programme, instead of pursuing nutrition based programmes that would have a minimal impact in countering the spread of the epidemic.

Civic organisations have argued that the government’s position could encourage a perception that nutrition and traditional medicines work as a substitute for ARVs and not that they complement them.

They further believe that the minister’s sentiments could result in people delaying in seeking the urgent medical treatment that could save their lives.

But in spite of the differences, observers believe new commitment made on World Aids Day on Friday could brighten prospects for a more committed stance on fighting to Aids epidemic in South Africa.

“We believe in good faith that there has been a real change of heart (by government),” TAC general secretary Sipho Mthathi said.

The government’s new approach has been spearheaded by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who has been named head of South Africa’s National Aids Council (Sanac).

Mlambo-Ngcuka has pledged to cooperate with activist groups such as the TAC “due to the seriousness of the problem we are facing”.

Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge has also moved into the spotlight as the government’s “new” face in the Health Department, eclipsing Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who critics say has come to personify the government’s failure in the Aids fight.

South Africa has rolled out one of the world’s most expansive ARV treatment programmes, spending an estimated R3-billion on the programme that is expected to provide treatment to 650 000 adults by 2011.

However experts have urged the government to reconsider its plan, with a view to increasing the treatment targets that may be severely inadequate by the 2011 dateline.

Aids activists and lobby groups said the state’s proposed plan may not be enough to counter the rapidly worsening effects of the epidemic.

A submission to Sanac by the Southern African HIV Clinicians’ Society (SAHCS), the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the Aids Law Project and the University of the Witwatersrand’s Reproductive Health Unit said the figures needed to be urgently revised.

“That number (650 000) is absurdly low. It needs to be recalculated,” SAHCS president Dr Francois Venter said recently.

The joint submission by the organisations notes that at least 800 000 people are currently in need of Aids treatment, while another 500 000 are added to that number each year.

By 2011, they say, an estimated 3.3million adults in South Africa will be in need of Aids treatment drugs, making the state’s proposed 650 000 figure extremely insufficient.

December 2006
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