The South African government has begun using its public health care system to provide affordable antiretroviral medicines for more than two million HIV-positive South Africans. This is the first step in the nation’s quest to stem the country’s rising HIV epidemic.
But if the South African government wants to reduce the number of citizens who are HIV-positive, they have a long way to go. South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world. Approximately 5.5 million of the country’s 53 million citizens have HIV, a figure which represents more than 10 percent of South Africa’s total population.
Despite these sobering statistics, many are confident that the South African government is finally starting to make important progress in the country’s long war against the HIV virus.
“We are quite optimistic because we have definitely turned the corner,” Aaron Motsoaledi, Health Minister, said in a recent interview. “We know it is a long way, still quite a journey, but we’ve definitely turned the corner.”
Thanks in large part to Motsoaledi, who became Health Minister in 2009, South Africa’s health care system has been successful in increasing the overall life expectancy of the citizens by eight years. In addition, the number of AIDS-related deaths has decreased by half over the past several years, from 350,000 in 2005 to 190,000 in 2012.
High HIV Risk
Among the groups in South Africa that are high-risk candidates for are prostitutes, of whom an estimated two-thirds are positive for the virus.
Health clinics have been established to treat the HIV of sex workers with antiviral drugs (ARVs), but there remain obstacles that prevent them from receiving the care they need. Among those obstacles are a cultural stigma about prostitution and the prejudice experienced by many foreigners to the country.
HIV and STD Treatments
One of the goals for doctors and other health care providers is to make sure that sex care workers are treated for other STDs that may make easier for them to contract or spread HIV to their clients. Aside from antiretroviral therapy (ART), the women are provided with condoms and are informed about the importance of safer sex practices.
Another high-risk group for HIV infection is South African women of childbearing age. It is estimated that one-third of the women who fit this description are HIV positive. Many of these women come from disadvantaged neighborhoods, which makes it more difficult to receive treatment for HIV.
Other factors that can complicate the effectiveness of antiretroviral treatment include an inability to access the needed services at health centers, many of which are often overwhelmed and understaffed.
HIV Infection Rate Slowing
Yet for all these obstacles, South Africans agree that great strides have been made to slow the spread of HIV and AIDS.
“It was very hard for us back then,” said Sibongile Tshabalala, an HIV-positive South African woman, in referring to conditions in the country before the new government came into power.
“Now people have a choice: To live or not to live,” Tshabalala concluded.