SA's ART treatment programme makes an upward leap

Friday, October 2, 2009

Johannesburg - A new international report has indicated that South Africa's HIV and AIDS programmes are starting to show major signs of advancement in the area of Antiretroviral Treatment (ART).

One of the most notable achievements made, according to the report entitled: "Towards Universal Access: Scaling up Priority HIV/AIDS Interventions in the Health Sector", that the number of patients undergoing ART has almost doubled between 2007 and 2008.

The number has increased from 458 951 in 2007 to 700 500 in 2008.

"While it is too early to assess the true impact of scale up, programme reports already show signs of progress with one of the largest treatment coverage programmes in the world now reaching half a million people," said the report.

It further noted that the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) services were available to over 50 percent of those in need.

The report was released on Wednesday by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

It found that the National Strategic Plan (NSP) 2007 - 2011 was one of the largest treatment coverage programmes in the world, with South Africa ranked second in the world in terms of domestic spending on AIDS programmes.

"The setting of targets has helped to galvanise the different stakeholders and foster a consultative participatory process, such as target setting, drafting and costing, resulting in the ownership of the NSP," noted the report.

However, major challenges remain around limited implementation capacity to fully operationalise the Strategic Plan.

"South Africa has recognized skilled human resource capacity as a major impediment towards rapid scale up of intervention programmes, particularly in the provinces. This is a major challenge since human resource capacity, particularly in specialised fields of the health sector cannot be developed overnight," the report said.

Other challenges include the low uptake of prevention and weak service delivery structures more especially at lower levels.

This latest data supports the recent study by the Human Science Research Council, which revealed that the national response to the country's HIV and AIDS epidemic by government and various stakeholders was starting to show some positive results.

According to the National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Communication Survey conducted in 2008, South Africa's HIV and AIDS epidemic has stabilised and there are signs of a declining prevalence among children and teenagers.

It shows that the HIV prevalence has leveled off at 10.9 percent in the age group two and older.

According to government's Development Indicators, the 2007 antenatal care survey reflected a 1 percent reduction in overall HIV prevalence between 2006 and 2007, and a 2 percent reduction between 2005 and 2007.

It attributed this achievement to successful voluntary counseling and testing, prevention of mother-to-child transmission services which were provided in more than 95 percent of health facilities, the distribution of condoms and the introduction of a new dual-therapy policy in February 2008.

WHO Director General Margaret Chan said while the world was making tremendous progress in the HIV and AIDS response, governments across the world, should not rest on their laurels with at least five million people living with HIV still not having access to life-prolonging treatment and care.

"Prevention services fail to reach many in need, governments and international partners must accelerate their efforts to achieve universal access to treatment," said Chan.

UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidib, agreed, saying all indications were that the number of people needing treatment will rise dramatically over the next few years.

"Ensuring equitable access will be one of our primary concerns and UNAIDS will continue to act as a voice for the voiceless, ensuring that marginalized groups and people most vulnerable to HIV infection have access to the services that are so vital to their wellbeing and to that of their families and communities." said Sidibe.