By Minister Faith Muthambi
For many South Africans living with HIV and AIDS, the country’s free antiretroviral programme is a second chance. These proud South Africans live healthy lives and are productive members of our communities.
They are workers who contribute to our economy, parents who remain healthy to care for their children and young people who attend learning institutions so that they can be a part of our brighter future.
Our acclaimed antiretroviral treatment programme, the largest of its kind with more than 2.7 million participants, has empowered people living with HIV and AIDS to manage their health condition. Moreover, it is accompanied by strong prevention initiatives such as the distribution of condoms, medical male circumcision and safer blood transfusions to curtail new infections.
Our journey in rolling back HIV and AIDS has, however, not always been an easy. In 2009, the government under the stewardship of President Jacob Zuma took decisive steps to dramatically expand our antiretroviral programme. In 2010, an HIV Counselling and Testing campaign was launched to reach all citizens: 18 million South Africans tested for HIV and AIDS in a18 months. Today more than 10 million South Africans are tested each year.
The people of South Africa have shown that it is possible to overcome adversity, moving from acceptance to decisive action in a short period of time. The government, together with NGOs, volunteers, religious and traditional institutions is turning the tide in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Our new policies ensure that children younger than a year automatically receive treatment when testing HIV positive. All patients with both tuberculosis and HIV are placed on antiretroviral treatment. Pregnant women who are HIV positive also receive treatment to prevent transmission.
The result is an increase in South Africans’ life expectancy and a sharp decrease in child mortality.
Earlier this year, Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, said: “AIDS deaths in South Africa declined from 320 000 in 2010 to 140 000 in 2014, and mother-to-child transmission of HIV reduced from 70 000 babies in 2004 to less than 7 000 in 2015.”
Our bold initiatives against HIV and AIDS have been commended by the Joint United Nations Programmes on HIV and AIDS.
Last year, the government launched a massive TB screening campaign. Thousands of people in correctional services, mining and peri-mining communities have been screened. This year, the Department of Health will focus the campaign on the country’s metros with the aim to screen 1,3 million people.
As a nation, we have much to share with the world from our experience. The many milestones we have reached, and life journeys transformed, will enrich the deliberation in the upcoming 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban.
Despite the good progress, we cannot afford to become complacent. New HIV infections particularly among young people continue to challenge us.
Speaking at the recent launch of the national HIV and AIDS education campaign for girls and young women, Deputy President Cyril Ramphosa said: “Despite our remarkable success in saving lives through the provision of free treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS, it is estimated that nearly 2 000 girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 are infected by HIV in this country each week.”
We can reverse this trend if we pull together to fight the scourge of HIV and AIDS. South Africans can begin by educating themselves and their children about HIV.
In being informed, we will know how to prevent infection and through regular testing, we can ensure those infected with the virus receive treatment.
The government appeals to all South Africans to work with us to reach our vision of zero new infections by practising safer sex, getting tested at least once a year and for men and boys to heed the call and take up medical male circumcision services.
Most of all we urge communities to support, care for and accept everyone living with HIV and AIDS. The stigma associated with HIV and AIDS is often more devastating than the disease itself.
It can lead to abandonment by a spouse or family, social ostracism, job and property loss, school expulsion, denial of medical services, lack of care and support, and being subjected to violence. It also results in a lower uptake of HIV preventive services and postponing or rejecting care.
Our Constitution compels us to protect the rights of any vulnerable group; without a doubt, this includes people living with HIV and AIDS.
Our vision for South Africa is one in which there are zero new HIV infections, zero deaths, zero infants born with HIV and zero stigma. We can only achieve this with all South Africans playing an active role.
Faith Muthambi is the Minister of Communications.