South Africa’s Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi is proving to be a responsible leader like his predecessor Barbara Hogan.
In marked contrast to previous health ministers, he responded soberly, and not defensively, to six major Lancet papers published online today, on the critical state of South Africa’s health.
Motsoaledi told The New York Times: “We do take responsibility for what has happened and responsibility for how we move forward.”
The health minister, who took control in May, also promised to try to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission.
He confirmed this commitment at a maternal, neo-natal, child and women health summit in Johannesburg today, when he said he would take its recommendations on reducing child mortality and the death of mothers very seriously, and act on them as soon as possible.
His willingness to listen to doctors, nurses and scientists is hugely significant, given the history of conflict between those at the frontline and those in power.
South Africa will lose 2,5 million people unless antiretroviral treatment is urgently scaled up, Professor Linda-Gail Bekker says.
She is the chairperson of the 4th SA Aids conference – under the banner Scaling up for success – and was opening the conference.
“This is an epidemic of unprecedented proportions. We are in the red zone in Southern Africa,” Bekker said, pointing to a map illustrating how bad it is.
Bekker, deputy director of UCT’s Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, said the conference was intended to identify:
* scientific evidence of what works and how to scale it up;
* the priorities;
* the next steps;
* how to remove obstacles; and
* how to work together with every sector.
So that’s what I’ll be looking out for.
“I’m on the scale up and start to role numbers back (campaign),” she said, demonstrating how HIV could disappear from the map. “Yes, we can.”
Dr John Hargrove from SACEMA (which does epidemiological modelling) gave a sweeping overview of why Southern Africa has been worst hit by the epidemic.
He looked at migratory patterns, medical male circumcision, religion (Muslim countries are less at risk), women’s education levels, the spatial influences on HIV infection and the disruption of families.
When it comes to spatial influences, HIV spreads much slower in communities where people sleep only with other residents, “with their neighbours wives only, rather than with their neighbours wives most of the year and 10% with random” partners. With the 10% random partners thrown in, the infection rate explodes.
Another issue he tackled was that of HIV spreading along trucking routes. But he said: “The problem is not roads but (Cecil John) Rhodes”, explaining how forcing men into migrant mine labour had disastrous consequences for families.
He also expanded on the Lancet debate of treatment as a way to end the epidemic.
“Use ARVs as an offensive weapon to kill the epidemic not just as a defensive (weapon),” he said, advocating early treatment for people living with HIV, especially the youth.
“I want to throw away the CD4 count machine,” he commented, explaining that if everyone was tested once a year voluntarily and treated without delay “that would kill the epidemic by 2010″.
Other keynote speakers Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Luyanda Ngcobo also made powerful statements but that report is in The Times tomorrow.
Deputy President Baleke Mbete replaced Health Minister Barbara Hogan as the final speaker, much to the disappointment of Hogan’s supporters.
She is expected to close the conference on Friday. Till tomorrow.