Relief as South African government changes tack on AIDS
By Benita van Eyssen Dec 1, 2006, 15:27 GMT
Johannesburg - Signs that the government has changed its approach to dealing with the HIV/AIDs pandemic have given South Africans cause for some hope for the first time in years.
Ironically it took the recent absence of the country's health minister - a controversial figure, best known for her promotion of lemon, garlic and beetroot remedies - to bring evidence of this apparently new mindset to light.
AIDS activists in South Africa have long called for the minister to be fired so that the country can move forward in the battle against the disease.
While Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was being treated in hospital for a reported lung infection, her deputy and South Africa's deputy president were locked in meetings with some of the government's biggest adversaries in the fight against AIDS.
Talks centred around the latest long-term strategy to deal with the disease, with which more than 5.5 million South Africans are infected. Every day, HIV/AIDS kills around 800 people in the country while new infections are running at a daily rate of around 1,000.
The reconciliatory tone, and admissions before members of civil society by Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka that the government's approach has been flawed, impressed even the most hardened AIDS activists.
Leaders from the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) lobby group praised the two for showing more leadership than Tshabalala-Msimang ever had, and signalled a willingness to cooperate in finalizing the latest national AIDS strategy to 2011, which is scheduled for release in the coming weeks.
The latest plan takes the plight of an estimated 800,000 people in need of anti-retroviral Aids drugs into consideration. It takes into account existing approaches to AIDS prevention, treatment and management.
Newest available figures show that by September of this year some 213,828 AIDS patients were being treated with drugs that can prolong the lives of those infected, an increase of 35,000 since June.
Fresh targets in the latest strategy include a target for drug treatment of at least 650,000 Aids patients by 2011.
South Africa's relationship with the deadly disease has always been difficult, with senior figures from the president down expressing doubts on various issues including the fact that HIV leads to AIDS and the efficacy of AIDs drugs.
The story of AIDS in South Africa has also been characterised by countless court battles and victories for those affected by the disease, including infected pregnant women and prisoners as well as patients in need of potentially life-prolonging drugs and support.
For many infected people the court orders have still to translate into actual treatment, as the rollout of drug treatment proceeds at a very slow pace.
The government's apparent change of tack has been attributed to the ridicule heaped upon South Africa's AIDS policy at the most recent International Aids conference in Toronto, Canada, when Tshabalala-Msimang came under particular criticism.
Some analysts have however noted that the apparent sidelining of the health minister was a minor positive step in tackling what remains a mammoth task.
'We require a good deal more,' AIDS researcher and author Jonny Steinberg wrote recently. 'e need a dose of courage and a breadth of imagination the public health service has not shown in 12 years. The mother of all tests has just begun.'© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur