Changing the Battle Against AIDS in South Africa

December 3, 2009

hiv_sa_150Yesterday on World AIDS Day, South Africa was in the news quite a bit. The executive director of UNAIDS was in Pretoria for the commemoration and along with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, called for greater HIV prevention measures. South Africa has the largest population of person’s living with HIV-nearly 6 million people. Globally, women are disproportionally affected by HIV and AIDS as the fastest rising group contracting the virus. In South Africa, women account for approximately 62% of all persons over age 15 living with HIV.

South Africa has a sad history of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. Despite relentless calls by Nelson Mandela’s 46664 organization for comprehensive government programs, South Africa under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki was a tragic wasteland of an epidemic. At one point, Mbeki promoted a policy of natural herbs for treatment, continuously under-funded anti-retroviral therapy (ART) and condom disbursement programs and committed many other policy failures that many blame for not only doing little to lower infection rates but in fact contributing to an increased infection rate.

Thus far, the Zuma presidency has been markedly different. Yesterday the administration announced increased access for vulnerable populations, including “all HIV-positive children under the age of one would be eligible for treatment,” more pregnant women will receive ART, and more person’s dual diagnosed with tuberculosis will also receive ART. Further, Zuma committed the government to “ensuring that all health facilities in the country are equipped to offer HIV counselling, testing and treatment” rather than only those approved as ART dispersal centers.

But for every yin there is a yang. Zuma is the guy who once famously implied you could prevent HIV transmission by taking a shower. He also originally stated he would take a public HIV test on World AIDS Day to encourage people to learn their status, but then withdrew citing concerns that any subsequent upsurge in demand for testing would lead to inadequate ability to provide counseling to those testing positive. This may be a true assessment of the situation, or it may be that Zuma isn’t ready to know his own status. As our South Africa Country Specialist, Linda Harris, noted, “Not to say Zuma should be forced to make his status public, who knows whether he’s positive or not, but in a country where HIV prevalence rates are so high, Presidential leadership is imperative.

Amnesty International has also worked to draw attention to the extreme challenges faced by rural women in receiving adequate medical treatment and other services. Health centers are far away, transport is expensive and rural transit systems are unreliable. Women reported the need to return to hospitals to collect CD4 count results (which determine when a person living with HIV can begin ART) or to return to hospitals to receive ART but “could only do so if they were able to borrow the transport money.”

Amnesty International applauds the reinvigorated efforts of the South African government to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but calls on government officials to address the “particular needs of women, including those living in poor, rural communities. Accessible, affordable and reliable transport is critical in improving access to health services and the government must give deeper recognition to this as a crucial element of the HIV and AIDS response.”

Take action! Urge South Africa to address the needs of rural women living with HIV and AIDS.