The 5th SA AIDS conference started in Durban today with a call to prioritise young people in the next HIV/AIDS National Strategic Plan.
Young people have a high rate of HIV infection, too many of them confront violence every day and many of the youth urgently need access to education Mark Heywood, deputy chairman of the SA National AIDS Council, said at the opening session.
“The bottom line is that the lives of young people have not improved,” he said.
Heywood shared the platform with a courageous young woman Mandisa Dlamini, whose mother Gugu was killed in 1998 for publicly disclosing she had HIV.
“I saw my mother dying but I nearly became infected with HIV. Two years later I was pregnant,” said Dlamini, talking about how young women can make wrong decisions and get into destructive cycles simply to survive.
The vulnerability and exploitation of young women is visible in any South African city. Leaving the International Conference Centre at 10pm tonight, I saw young female sex workers hanging out on street corners only a few blocks away looking for business.
One measure of the success of this conference and the next five-year National Strategic Plan (NSP) will the difference it makes the lives of women like them.
Conference chairman Professor Francois Venter reported on what great progress has been made on tackling HIV/AIDS in South Africa since the first conferences were held in Durban in 2000 and 2003.
But Venter, also president of the HIV Clinicians Society of Southern Africa, warned against being complacent, particularly in gains made around access to antiretroviral treatment.
“Antiretrovirals are magic muti. You go from zero to 100,” said Venter, commenting on how he has seen skeletal children and adults recover from near death to lead healthy lives again.
He warned that if funding for treatment runs out doctors could be telling patients, as they were back in the ‘80s in the US: “We have what it takes to keep you alive but we won’t pay for it”.
About 1.4 million South Africans — 100 000 of them children — are now on ARV medicines but still roughly 50% of people who need the life-saving drugs do not have them.
HIV prevention needs to be prioritised, Venter said, but not at the expense of cutting back on treatment.
Patients struggling to get their chronic medicines during the public sector strike can contact the SA National AIDS Council Nerve Centre for assistance at (012) 395 9078/9, (012) 395 9081/7/8/9 or (012) 395 9090 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
SANAC appealed to health workers today to make sure that the strike did not interrupt the flow of life-saving antiretrovirals and TB drugs to patients needing them, and to ensure that diabetic, epileptic and blood pressure patients could also get their medications.
More than a million South Africans are on ARVS and disrupting their treatment could jeopardise their health and increase the risk of drug resistance.
“A failure to ensure an uninterrupted flow of medication…will be seen for years to come and could adversely affect thousands of people,” warned SANAC deputy chairperson Mark Heywood.
“SANAC acknowledges the right of health workers to take industrial action. However we are concerned that persons who are reliant on the public health sector for medical care are being turned away, and in some cases intimidated, when presenting themselves for re-stocking of their medication.”
The Treatment Action Campaign and the human rights and health NGO, Section 27, also raised concerns about the impact of the strike.
“We support the demands of workers and their right to strike. But we regret the growing polarisation, pain and loss of life. This is now a political crisis that requires political leadership and a solution,” said TAC chairperson Nonkosi Khumalo.
The organisations urged government to pay health workers properly, saying they understood the anger of workers.
“But TAC and SECTION27 are concerned that striking workers have engaged in intimidation and violence against non-striking workers and endangered the lives of patients. It is vital that the workers hold the moral high ground in this strike.”
The organisations called on COSATU and all unions “to support efforts to ensure that people requiring chronic medicines” receive them.
They called on the Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, to take urgent measures to stabilise the health system including:
• Re-deploying bureaucrats from overstaffed offices of the national and provincial health departments into healthcare facilities.
• Holding hospital CEOs to account for performance.
• Identifying and punishing corruption
• Urgently finalising a rural health strategy, and
• Urgently finalising a reasonable human resource for health plan with sufficient resources to implement it.
The Health Professions Council of SA expressed its shock today at the “effects of the current strike action on the lives of patients”.
HPCSA Acting Registrar Ms Marella O’Reilly said: “We emphatically denounce the unlawful strike action.
“It is unacceptable that striking emergency service workers in healthcare environments are either interfering with or refusing to assist healthcare practitioners who are providing an essential service.”
The Council called for “urgent mediation to ensure that essential services deliver on the public’s constitutional right to healthcare services”.