South African Government Faced With Creating Largest HIV/AIDS Treatment Program in World
The South African government, which is expected to approve a national antiretroviral treatment program this year, is faced with creating the largest HIV/AIDS treatment program in the world, the Baltimore Sun reports (Murphy, Baltimore Sun, 10/14). The South African government on Aug. 8 called for the Ministry of Health to develop a national program to provide antiretroviral medications to residents with HIV/AIDS. A special task team on Sept. 30 presented to the health minister a draft plan of the program (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 10/7). While the details of the national treatment program remain "sketchy," the challenge before the South African government is "daunting," the Sun reports. Approximately 5.3 million HIV-positive people live in South Africa, and an estimated 600 South Africans die each day from AIDS-related complications, the Sun reports. According to a United Nations report, only 50,000 HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to antiretroviral medications, fewer than 1% of the people who need them. According to a recent South African government study, treating all people with HIV/AIDS in the country by 2010 will cost $2.4 to $3 billion annually. AIDS advocates say that the country's treatment plan is "long overdue" and question the motives behind the government's recent change in policy, according to the Sun. "Even though we welcome the roll-out plan, we have mixed feelings about whether the government reached a turning point because of (national) elections next year," Tembeka Majali of the Treatment Action Campaign said. The South African government had been reluctant to distribute antiretrovirals, citing high treatment costs, potential drug toxicity and a lack of government resources to support treatment. According to the Sun, "[m]uch of the reluctance originated" from the office of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who "raised doubts" about the connection between HIV and AIDS (Baltimore Sun, 10/14).
The New York Times on Tuesday profiled TAC Chair Zackie Achmat, who recently started taking antiretroviral medications to treat his HIV infection after refusing for years to take the drugs until the South African government changed its policy on providing treatment through the public health system. Although he believes that the government will not move quickly to fulfill its promise to provide the drugs, Achmat said, "I've wanted to take medicines for a long time, and to me it's a genuine relief." However, Achmat said he feels guilty about his decision to begin treatment because "there are many, many people who won't have access for a long time. I'll worry about them, and I worry that this country still hasn't woken up to the fact that we have people dying on our doorsteps and we close our eyes to it." Since he has begun treatment, Achmat has felt "lightheaded" and has experienced headaches but feels well in general, according to the Times. The best part about treatment is that he is gaining back his energy, Achmat said, adding that he is surprised at how he is able to participate in meetings that previously would have been too exhausting. In addition, Achmat plans to attend law school at the University of Cape Town next year. He "is clearly not looking to slow down," according to the Times (Valentine, New York Times, 10/14).