Fighting the Battle to Eliminate HIV at Home
Foundation Ambassador Florence Ngobeni-Allen writes about the fight to eliminate HIV in her home country of South Africa.
In July, I traveled to Durban for the South African AIDS Conference as one of the members of the UNAIDS think tank and an ambassador of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). At the conference, I attended many meetings with key stakeholders from civil society and the South African Department of Health.
The conference highlighted a number of successes in the fight against HIV/AIDS. There are now more than 2 million South Africans on life-saving HIV treatment, and the rate of transmission of HIV from mother to child has decreased to 3.5 percent. These successes would have not been possible without the leadership of the South African government and its partnership with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Through this leadership, more women and men are receiving life-saving HIV medications.
The South African strategic plan to fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) is good, and is being put into practice. However, it is incorrect to think that the war has been won and that there is no longer a problem – South Africa still has more than 5 million people infected with HIV, and hundreds more become infected each day.
In sub-Saharan Africa, young women are as much as eight times more likely than men to be living with HIV. There are some efforts to improve school-based programming for education and HIV prevention, but these programs need to be reviewed and reintroduced to schools. We also need to have programs to keep girls in school, as this is shown to help reduce their HIV risk. More than half of all girls who start school in South Africa do not graduate. These girls and young women often have limited options for employment or income earning opportunities, making them vulnerable in many ways.
Although South Africa is sometimes classified as a middle-income country, many people here continue to live in extreme poverty. Even people with access to HIV medication must still deal with the side effects and costs associated with treatment. They struggle to purchase nutritious food and medication that can address the side effects of HIV care and treatment. I believe that addressing HIV-related poverty by helping small businesses and enterprises run by and for HIV-positive people is an important way to overcome these issues.
In addition, HIV-related stigma and discrimination remains a concern. People still keep their status secret from even their closest family and lack much-needed support as a result. This needs to be addressed. More male-involvement and youth-friendly programs are also essential to help meet South Africa’s elimination goals.
South Africa has come a long way in the fight against HIV – but much more work must be done to achieve an AIDS-free generation. We must scale up prevention programs to reduce the amount of young women who get infected, and we must have more programs that support people already affected by HIV and AIDS.