Durban - The first clinic to give free antiretroviral treatment in KwaZulu-Natal will celebrate 15 years of saving lives on Saturday.
This comes as Durban prepares to host the 21st International Aids Conference in July – for the second time.
In 2000, the conference was hosted on African soil for the first time. This was where Michael Weinstein, president of the US non-profit organisation Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF), was approached by HIV/Aids activists who took him to uMlazi, where he saw how desperately antiretroviral treatment was needed.
Out of this meeting, the Thembalabantu Clinic in uMlazi was born, at a time when there was no access to free antiretroviral treatment at government healthcare facilities.
The Daily News on Thursday spoke to AHF chief of global advocacy and policy, Terri Ford.
In 2001, she was tasked by Weinstein to travel to Durban in three days, find a location and prepare to open the clinic, initially treating 100 patients.
“The site was not in good condition. There was a funeral parlour on one side and a traditional healer on the other,” recalled Ford.
As an activist, Ford had been among those who had already fought, been arrested, but eventually won the battle for treatment in the US – and faced the challenge again in South Africa.
She was steadfast, overcoming bureaucracy and politicking to open the clinic within three weeks.
“People were dying, but we pushed on because people lived if they got the drugs,” said Ford.
At the time, it cost them $5 000 (about R30 000 in 2001) annually to treat each patient. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but it was such a desperate situation.
“We just had to do it.”
Ford said they started with just three staff members, including nurse Cynthia Luthuli, who still works there.
The expectant queues of people did not materialise, because of the stigma and negativity about treatment – that it was toxic and more detrimental than the virus.
Among those who had the courage to start treatment at Thembalabantu – which means people’s hope – was Thembisile Mkhize of uMlazi.
“I was patient number 68,” said Mkhize, pounding her chest in a manner denoting pride.
“I would not be alive and speaking to you today if it was not for Thembalabantu. HIV didn’t break my spirit (because) the clinic staff made me feel comfortable and spoke to me with respect. Rather than just dishing out pills, they had classes where they explained what the pills were, and why we were taking them,” said Mkhize.
Ford said Mkhize and the other 99 people who “had the courage to take a chance on drugs people were afraid of, even if it meant dying”, were heroes. “They set the example for everybody to overcome their fear and fight to stay alive. They were getting well, and people could see that,” she said.
AHF has since established more clinics around the world, and expanded their testing programme in uMlazi, where they made their first footprint outside the US.
Ford said she was proud of the difference made at Thembalabantu.
“The lessons we learnt in South Africa have made us much better in helping the rest of the world. We are really happy about out relationship with the government, which improved when leadership changed.”
On the eve of the Aids conference, AHFwill hold a Keep the Promise march at Kingsmead Stadium, in protest against the decrease in funding for HIV/Aids globally.