Zimbabwe Holds First National AIDS Conference To Highlight Antiretroviral Program, Prevention Issues
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe on Wednesday addressed the country's first national AIDS conference, which brings together community groups and health workers to discuss ways to combat the disease, VOA News reports. Mugabe called for greater collaboration among the more than 300 nongovernmental and community-based organizations that work on HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, according to VOA News (Maphosa, VOA News, 6/16). The conference, titled "Taking Stock: Looking into the Future," will examine Zimbabwe's progress in treating and preventing HIV/AIDS, according to Xinhua News Agency. Christine Chakanyuka, an AIDS expert with the country's health ministry, said at the conference that Zimbabwe's government is "committed to providing a comprehensive package for HIV/AIDS prevention, care and support," according to Xinhua News Agency. "Mobilization of resources in partnership with the private sector is going on," Chakanyuka said, adding, "This has paved the foundation for increased access to antiretroviral drugs and authority to import generic drugs resulting in improved AIDS care" (Xinhua News Agency, 6/15). More than 3,000 people die of AIDS-related causes each week in Zimbabwe, which has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world at 24.9%. Earlier this year, the Zimbabwean government announced a pilot project to distribute antiretroviral drugs at no cost to patients in select government hospitals. According to officials, about 70% of patients in Zimbabwe's hospitals are HIV-positive (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 6/9). Panganayi Dhliwayo, a member of the conference's organizing committee and a health ministry official, said that the number of new HIV cases in Zimbabwe is beginning to decline. Dhliwayo added that the country "deserved a pat on the back" for its efforts to prevent and treat the disease, according to the AFP/Herald (AFP/Herald, 6/16).
Chakanyuka said that the antiretroviral pilot programs will be expanded after the government trains additional workers and gains experience in administering the drugs, according to Xinhua News Agency (Xinhua News Agency, 6/15). Mugabe lauded the treatment program, although he said that a maximum of 10,000 can be enrolled in the program because of a lack of funding. He called on more resources to build a "sustainable," expanded antiretroviral drug program and urged voluntary counseling and testing centers to expand into rural areas, VOA News reports. Mugabe also said that traditional healers could play a role in the treatment of HIV-positive people in the country. "There is a need also to compliment expensive modern ARVs by finding a role for effective traditional medicine in AIDS care," Mugabe said, adding, "After all, the majority of our people still rely on and could benefit from traditional medicine as long as the proposed remedies pass and I emphasize, pass the necessary medicines control tests" (VOA News, 6/16).
Business Community Involvement
Albert Manenji, acting director of Zimbabwe's National AIDS Council, said that assistance from the country's business community is "welcome" in the effort to provide antiretrovirals, according to Zimbabwe's Herald/AllAfrica.com. "A total of $7 billion has been set aside for the provision of ARVs," Manenji said, adding, "Any help that may come in is welcome in this fight against the pandemic." However, Collen Gwiyo, acting secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, said he does not know of any local companies that are providing workers with antiretrovirals, according the Herald/AllAfrica.com. Gwiyo said that providing antiretroviral drugs is "generally a responsibility of the National AIDS Council," adding, "The NAC is collecting levies from workers and they must ensure that workers access ARVs" (Tsiko, Herald/AllAfrica.com, 6/15). Phineas Makurira, who spoke on behalf of doctors at the conference, said that poverty "is one of the factors limiting the access to ARVs," according to Agence France-Presse. Approximately three-quarters of Zimbabwe's population lives in poverty and cannot afford the drugs, Agence France-Presse reports (Agence France-Presse, 6/15). The United Nations office in Zimbabwe, which is co-sponsoring the conference, said that despite declines in the number of new HIV cases, some people -- "particularly women" -- have begun to "take sexual risks" due to "economic hardships," according to Reuters reports. "Risky sexual behavior, including unsafe sex in exchange for cash, food, tillage (of fields) and agricultural inputs, jobs or other basic necessities, persist[s]" in Zimbabwe, according to the United Nations (Mapenzauswa, Reuters, 6/15).
Although Zimbabwe has "already moved from the stage of staring at total defeat" by the HIV/AIDS epidemic to believing that the country can "win" the battle against the disease, there is "obviously still ... a long way to go," according to a Herald/AllAfrica.com editorial. The disease is no longer "being swept under the carpet" and condoms are "very cheap and sold openly," but there is "still a sizeable majority" in Zimbabwe's population that engages in risky behavior, the editorial says. Zimbabwe "cannot reject" antiretroviral drugs, although the drugs may lead some to be less careful about avoiding spreading the disease if they believe it is not a "sentence of premature death," the editorial says. Access to antiretrovirals will "reduce the fear" of being tested for HIV and may present opportunities for "drastically slowing the spread" of the virus, according to the editorial. Young people who have changed their behavior in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic have shown that it is "not impossible" to take steps to prevent the disease, the editorial says, concluding that other people need to "follow that example" (Herald/AllAfrica.com, 6/15).