COLLECTIVE EFFORT: Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu displays a T-shirt bearing the HIV-positive insignia. Tutu has frequently pledged support for the struggle against the pandemic, a stance more religious leaders should take, says the author of this report. Picture: AP

Saturday marked the 25th global observance of World Aids Day. Established by the World Health Organisation in 1988 in the early days of the epidemic, World Aids Day is aimed at bringing together people from around the world to raise awareness of HIV/Aids and to demonstrate international solidarity in the face of the pandemic.

Our country has joined the world in advancing and embracing the theme of World Aids Day: Getting to Zero. It is a theme that resonates and inspires us to do more in the fight against this pandemic. It encourages us to push forward to zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination against HIV-positive people, zero Aids-related deaths, and zero mother-to-child transmissions.

While HIV/Aids cannot yet be cured, it is treatable and preventable. Medical science has come up with effective medications that have enabled care providers to slow, and in many cases prevent, the progression from HIV infection to Aids. Increasingly, humanity is “getting to zero” on this pandemic.

After a few tragic missteps, fumbles and costly contradictions, our country is now turning the tide against HIV/Aids. We are now cited as an example of what is possible against all the odds. At the World Aids Conference in Washington last July, the head of UNAids, Michel Sidibé, praised the collective effort that has completely changed the nature of the epidemic in our country.

Part of this collective effort had to do, in no small measure, with leadership both from government and civil society. Today we are at the cutting edge of medical research in efforts to come up with a vaccine or cure for HIV/Aids. Our scientists have put us on the map in HIV prevention research and vaccine development.

In 2010, South African medical scientists provided the first evidence that a microbicide – a vaginal gel infused with an ARV – can prevent HIV transmission. Of late, South Africa has launched a research programme in partnership with the government of India to design and develop vaccines against HIV.

Ten years after the start of a national prevention of mother-to-child transmission programme, South Africa’s mother-to-child HIV transmission rate is down to 2.7 percent, according to a Medical Research Council report.

This is all commendable.

These efforts and results can be doubled if we all work together with unity of purpose in defeating the HIV/Aids epidemic.

In this regard, the question has to be asked: what is the role of the religious community in the fight against HIV/Aids? Should religious organisations get involved?

South Africa is a highly religious country. In many areas local churches and mosques have a prominent position within the community. They are often well respected and people still listen to religious leaders. If religious leaders have a good understanding of HIV and Aids, their response can set an example to the rest of the community.

Yet some religious leaders and organisations are unwilling to become involved in work with those affected by HIV/Aids. Usually, this is because HIV is wrongly viewed as a punishment from God on individuals who engage in ungodly behaviour. In some places people who are known to be living with HIV are not welcome in places of worship.

We must challenge such discrimination against people who are HIV-positive and/or are living with Aids.

When HIV started to spread in the 1980s, it spread mainly among certain groups of people, including men who have sexual intercourse with men, commercial sex workers, and people who inject drugs. This has often led to the view that HIV is a punishment from God on individuals.

However, HIV affects us all in some way and to some extent we are all at risk of contracting HIV.

There are babies who are HIV-positive through no fault of their own.

How possible is it that God could be punishing them? The biblical ethos teaches not to look for whom to blame but to seek for the solution.

Given the penetration, relevance and presence of religious organisations in our communities, I would implore religious organisations to get involved in HIV/Aids work and the government to partner with them in its programmes.

Working together we can defeat the HIV/Aids epidemic.