Zuma 'committed and serious' on HIV and AIDS

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Civil society organisations have mostly lauded President Jacob Zuma as "committed and serious" in the fight against the HIV and AIDS pandemic.

Zuma, addressing the main World AIDS Day event in Pretoria yesterday, called on the nation to stop the spread of HIV and reduce the rate of new infections.

Announcing bold and life-changing policies, the president said as of April 2010, HIV positive people, with a CD4 count of 350 or less, will now receive anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment. He also said pregnant HIV positive women with a CD4 count of 350 or with symptoms, regardless of their CD4 count, will now have access to treatment. Pregnant women, not falling in this category but who are HIV positive, will be put on treatment at 14 weeks to protect the baby, he said.

However, the National Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS (NAPWA) had some reservations about the implementation of the policies.

"The speech we believe was silent on the issue of food security. It focused more on medication. The majority of people living with HIV are unemployed and without food security. Whatever plans there are, they will not succeed if people don't have the proper nutrition," said NAPWA spokesperson Nkululeko Nxesi, adding that they were still optimistic about the way forward,

"This takes us many steps forward in combating HIV. It will not only benefit South Africa but SADC as a whole. He gave us clear direction," he said.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), who have in the past criticised government's stance on the pandemic, said the changes are all based on strong medical evidence and will significantly reduce mortality.

The TAC said President Zuma would face serious challenges in ensuring that these changes were not just changes to policy. They said Zuma would need to ensure that they were implemented in all facilities across the country.

"TAC is committed to working with government to address capacity constraints to improve the response to HIV. TAC further supports government's call for all South Africans to take responsibility for their own health, get tested and access treatment for HIV. We call on government to strengthen health systems to implement the improved treatment guidelines," the organisation said.

mothers2mother (m2m), a Cape Town-based organisation that offers comprehensive support to HIV positive pregnant women and new mothers, applauded the president's commitment to strengthening the battle against HIV and AIDS, especially his call to improving maternal and infant health and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV.

m2m Medical Director, Dr. Mitch Besser, said direct support from government would provide many South Africans with the opportunity for a longer and healthier life.

"It gives our programme great hope that mothers living with HIV are being highlighted as a pivotal target for the new administration's quest for more extensive and comprehensive treatment and care opportunities," Besser said.

The South African Medical Association (SAMA) commended Zuma and said while more people would receive treatment, they hope fewer would become infected.

"We call on all South Africans to assist the government in eradicating the scourge, by ensuring that they also play their part: Know your HIV status, practice safe sex and ensure that if infected, you take your treatment. Personal co-responsibility thus remains crucial," said SAMA chairman, Dr Norman Mabasa.

Dr William Mapham from the Reproductive Health and Research Unit (RHRU) said the new changes in policy were "very exciting" and would hopefully see government and civil organisations working together.

"The policy changes are exciting and will have a huge impact on PMTCT and TB guidelines. This is a really positive sign that will have an impact on our programmes," Mapham said.

Zuma reiterated government's commitment to fighting the devastating effects the disease has had on many households.

"Let this be the start of an era of openness, of taking responsibility, and of working together in unity to prevent HIV infections and to deal with its impact."