Durban - South Africa must urgently ensure it has adequate capacity to treat the more than 5 million people living with HIV in the country – or risk becoming a victim of its own success story.
That’s the strong warning from Michael Weinstein, president of the largest non-profit global HIV/Aids organisation in the US, Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF).
He was speaking to the Daily News ahead of his organisation’s R15 million expansion of its free Aids treatment clinic in uMlazi, in partnership with the Department of Health in KwaZulu-Natal.
Hailing the efforts of South Africa in curbing the spread of HIV/Aids which has seen an increase in access to much-needed antiretroviral (ARV) therapy and subsequent lower mortality rates, Weinstein warned, at the same time, that the country’s fight against Aids had now “almost hit a brick wall”.
“South Africa has had a miraculous past five years in HIV treatment thanks to the ARV roll-out especially in KZN.
“From where it was to where it is now, it’s a breathtaking improvement.
“However the country is now at a critical point where despite the tremendous progress that has been made, there are not enough infrastructures to support the 5 million HIV-positive people requiring treatment and its success with the HIV over the past five years has led to some degree of complacency.
“The country will need to reinforce its community care clinics and step up its communication and social marketing in a number of areas to ensure adequate care is provided for treatment. This includes the importance of testing for the virus, an increase in trained personnel and increasing infrastructure for treatment,” said Weinstein.
KwaZulu-Natal, seen as the epicentre of the Aids epidemic, is already expanding health care at community level and is bolstering programmes to include HIV testing and treatment skills for nurses and community care workers, particularly in rural areas.
In addition, there are over 207 000 patients currently receiving ARV treatment in KZN - the largest ARV treatment programme in the world.
But, he said, more was needed. His organisation was ready to help to ensure more patients were provided with affordable and accessible treatment for HIV/Aids.
He also called on those affected by HIV to speak out in promoting awareness of the virus.
“The voice of those affected by HIV/Aids was stronger 10 years ago.
“There is a sense that because people are no longer dying of the disease today at the same rate, there is a level of complacency. The reality is that the majority of new infections today are people who are positive and don’t even know it. We also have high rates of treatment defaulters and those who are diagnosed late which means they are quite far gone when they present to the clinic for treatment.
“We need to step up our efforts in those areas,” explained Weinstein.
The AHF provides HIV and Aids treatment to more than 45 000 people across 89 facilities around South Africa, including its flagship Ithembalabantu Clinic in uMlazi where it treats 200 patients daily.
The organisation also spearheads the 20x20 campaign aimed at influencing governments to scale up access to antiretroviral therapy for at least 20 million people by 2020.
The campaign seeks to change the global mindset and reinterpret the Aids response not as a burden, but as a smart long-term investment that will pave the way to ending Aids, boosting economic growth and saving millions of lives.