Tuesday, December 09, 2008

New Leadership in South Africa brings hope for AIDS Reform

72% of the 5.5 million South Africans who are HIV-positive are in need of antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment. In leading the movement against ARV drugs, recently removed South African President Thabo Mbeki denied millions of his people HIV treatment. He believes that the AIDS pandemic was created by Western pharmaceutical companies to take advantage of Africans and maximize their profits. Mbeki also sides with dissident scientists in denying that the HIV virus causes AIDS and in 2003 he was quoted as saying, “Personally, I don’t know anybody who has died of AIDS” and when asked if he knew anyone infected with HIV he responded, “I really, honestly don’t”. Mbeki’s views opposing antiretroviral drugs were echoed by his Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, more commonly known as “Dr. Garlic”, who promotes garlic, olive oil, beetroot, and African potatoes as a cure for AIDS.

Because the South African government has been reluctant to supply its people with antiretroviral drugs, HIV/AIDS activist groups, such at the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), have been instrumental in the push to allow the distribution of these drugs. It was not until 2004 that the South African government, pressured by HIV/AIDS activist groups, finally began to provide ARVs for its people. It also took a Constitutional Court battle and much lobbying from the TAC to compel the Health Department to allow the administration of AZT and nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus.

However, the recent resignation of Mbeki as President of South Africa and the September 25th appointment of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) deputy head Kgaleme Motlanthe as interim president, give HIV/AIDS activists hope for change. His first day in office, Motlanthe demoted “Dr. Garlic” to a less important Cabinet position and appointed Barbara Hogan, a senior ANC member of Parliament, as Minister of Health and Dr. Molefi Sefularo as Deputy Minister of Health. The TAC applauded Motlanthe’s change in administration and issued a statement in support of the new appointees. The TAC credits Hogan as being “one of the few Members of Parliament to speak out against AIDS denialism and to offer support to the TAC” and cites Dr. Sefularo as supporting “ARV rollout and the implementation of the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission” at Health of North West Province.

Hogan has already promised to “champion the issue” of the government increasing spending on providing ARVs to HIV-positive individuals. In an interview just hours before being sworn into office, Hogan was quoted as saying, “I would thoroughly endorse the roll-out of anti-retrovirals and any way that we can accelerate that, the better”.

Looking ahead to the next president’s administration, in the most recent edition of the ANC newsletter Jacob Zuma, current ANC President the expected future South African President, is quoted as wanting “more action with regards to the reduction of HIV infections…widespread HIV prevention, treatment and support programmes”. Yet, Zuma’s infamous statement during his 2006 rape trial that he showered after intercourse with a HIV-positive woman to minimize the risk of becoming infected lingers in the back of my mind. I question that how such change can be implemented when South African government officials still need to be educated about how HIV is transmitted and how to reduce their risk of infection.

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