Activists See Real Change in South African Government’s Dealings With HIV/AIDS
HIV/AIDS activists in South Africa say that the government's "dramatic reversal" last month on HIV/AIDS policies seems to be "genuine," the Philadelphia Inquirer reports (Maykuth, Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/13). On April 17, the South African government said that it would provide post-exposure prophylaxis antiretroviral treatment for survivors of rape and sexual assault. The government also said that it may ensure universal access for HIV-positive pregnant women through the national health system to the antiretroviral drug nevirapine to reduce the risk of vertical HIV transmission. National policy previously barred the distribution of post-exposure antiretrovirals to sexual assault survivors in public health facilities, and the government had fought a judicial verdict compelling it to distribute nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/22). The government has been "widely perceived to be insensitive to the AIDS pandemic" because of its opposition to antiretroviral drugs and President Thabo Mbeki's "mixed messages" on the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS. Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told reporters last week that South Africa is "beginning to turn a corner" on HIV/AIDS even though the government continues to challenge the nevirapine court distribution order on constitutional grounds. Mark Heywood of the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg said, "Some people think the cabinet's change was a cynical ploy to reduce pressure on the government. But people we know at public hospitals say the atmosphere has changed in government, that more drugs are being made available and there are fewer obstacles" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/13).
Moving From Policy to Action
Mbeki assured reporters on Sunday that the government is "doing its utmost" to combat the disease and acknowledged that the government might not have always "communicated adequately" with regard to HIV/AIDS (Doyle, Reuters, 5/12). However, not all activists are convinced that the policy changes will translate into action. "It's not clear yet that the government is going to own up," Thabani Masuku, a constitutional analyst for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, said. Jackie Schoeman, executive director of the Cotlands Baby Sanctuary, a hospice for children with HIV, said nevirapine needs to be distributed as soon as possible. "They say they're worried about the side effects of nevirapine, but I don't know what side effects could be worse than dying," Schoeman said, adding, "We see more and more children who are coming to us to die. We need to get something in place soon" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/13). SABC Radio news reported on Saturday that Deputy President Jacob Zuma said government plans for a nevirapine roll out were "in place" but did not give further details (South African Press Association, 5/11).
Anti-Stigma Campaign Launched
Zuma and officials from the South African Council of Churches on Sunday launched a new campaign to reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in the country, the South African Press Association reports. The campaign kicked off at the Regina Mundi church in Soweto and at a "moral regeneration" rally in Westbury. "In building a caring nation, we need to work together to fight the stigmatization of those living with the disease, and confront negative stereotypes and fears," Zuma said, adding that the SACC's involvement was "highly significant as we believe the church and the entire religious sector have a critical role to play in preventing the spread of the disease." SACC General Secretary Dr. Molefe Tsele said church leaders have "failed to embrace" people with HIV/AIDS but were going to "wage an onslaught against the stigmatization of HIV and AIDS" (South African Press Association, 5/12).