South African policy shift on HIV likely to see fall in deaths, says UN


THE SOUTH African government’s decision late last year to introduce a new policy to combat the HIV virus is expected to cause a dramatic turnaround in the fight against the disease by 2020, a United Nations official said recently.

Late last week UNAids regional director for east and southern Africa, Sheila Tlou, told a conference in Geneva that South Africa’s status as the country with the world’s highest number of HIV cases – with 5.6 million infections – was because of a lack of political commitment by past governments.

Previous administrations under former president Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang had been accused by Aids activists of ignoring expert medical advice on how best to tackle the epidemic.

Former minister Tshabalala-Msimang, who is now deceased, was nicknamed Dr Beetroot by many South Africans for advocating the use of vegetables rather medication to treat Aids.

“However, there is a turnaround in the new [African National Congress] government under President Zuma which is committed” to tackling HIV and AIDS, said Ms Tlou. “By 2020 there will be massive reductions [in HIV deaths and infections] in South Africa,” she said. On December 1st last year Mr Zuma officially launched the new South African National Strategic Plan on HIV and TB, 2012– 2016, which has five goals.

These are to halve the number of new HIV infections; ensure that at least 80 per cent of people eligible for treatment for HIV are receiving it; halve the number of new TB infections and deaths from TB; ensure that the rights of people living with HIV are protected; and halve stigma related to HIV and TB.

The national plan includes tuberculosis in its goals and strategic objectives for the first time, due to the high co-infection of HIV and TB in South Africa. It is estimated that 70 per cent of people living with HIV also have TB.

The extent of the virus’s reach was revealed in a survey published on Monday by the South African Institute of Race Relations, which claimed the population would be greater by over 4.4 million people if it were not for the Aids epidemic.

“There are 50.6 million people in the country. In the absence of Aids, this would have been 55 million,” said the institute.

“The data shows that 31 per cent of all deaths in 2011 were Aids-related. By 2015, this proportion will have risen to 33 per cent.

“In 2025, there will be 121 per cent more Aids deaths than there were in 2000,” it said.

The race relations institute went on to say that an estimated six million people would be living with HIV/Aids in 2015, double the number recorded in 2000.

Researcher Thuthukani Ndebele said the disease had resulted in a significantly slower population growth rate.

“Not only does HIV/Aids reduce life expectancy and increase mortality, but it is largely responsible for wider social ills such as orphanhood and child-headed households,” he said.

Pieter Fourie, a specialist technical adviser on HIV/Aids with Aids Foundation South Africa, told The Irish Timeshe agreed with the UN assessment on many levels. However, he feared the infection rate would be more difficult to reduce than predicted.

“Since Mbeki left office in 2007 there has been a significant degree of progress in relation to tackling the disease in South Africa. The new government has taken it upon itself to implement the global principles that previous administrations failed to.

“I agree that because of this new approach South Africa will experience a significant reduction in the number of Aids-related deaths, but I’m not so convinced there will be similar reductions in the number of infections during the same time frame,” he said.