JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa launched a revamped national AIDS plan on Wednesday as new research showed the high cost of government inaction on the epidemic — 1,500 South Africans infected with HIV every day.
South Africa’s National Strategic Plan, submitted for approval at a conference, aims to cut new HIV infections by 50 percent and bring treatment and support to at least 80 percent of HIV-positive people by 2011.
Health analysts hope South Africa is undergoing a basic shift in its official approach to a disease that already infects about 5.5 million of the country’s 47 million people and kills an estimated 1,000 South Africans every day.
“The indications are there has been a genuine change of heart at the highest level,” the influential Business Day newspaper said in an editorial on Wednesday.
President Thabo Mbeki’s government has long been accused by activists of underplaying the threat of the epidemic, soliciting views of “AIDS denialist” scientists and questioning the efficacy and safety of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs.
While public pressure forced South Africa to launch one of the world’s largest public ARV programmes — with more than 200,000 people already enrolled and up to a million seen getting the drugs by 2011 — many political observers have continued to question government commitment to fighting the disease.
Much of the hope around South Africa’s new AIDS strategy has been fuelled by the sidelining of combative Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang — now on sick leave — and the naming of Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as the country’s top official on HIV policy.
AIDS activists have praised Mlambo-Ngcuka for her willingness to take a fresh approach to battling the epidemic.
Government officials said last week the new plan had a preliminary budget of about $3.3 billion, but other estimates have put the costs as high as $6 billion, leaving questions on where the extra money would come from.
“Government’s willingness to dig deep into its pockets will be the litmus test of its commitment,” Business Day said.
The human costs of South Africa’s foot-dragging on AIDS were highlighted on Wednesday with the release of a study which showed an estimated 571,000 new HIV infections in 2005: roughly 1,500 people a day — well above Health Ministry projections.
The research, published in the March edition of the South African Medical Association Journal, said young people and particularly young women were not being reached by current AIDS prevention efforts.
“Among young people in the 15-24 year age group, women accounted for 90 percent of all recent HIV infections,” the researchers said.
The study also said a “substantial” number of children were infected with HIV through means other than mother-to-child transmission, which could fuel concern over child sexual abuse, and that residents of South Africa’s sprawling urban shantytowns had by far the highest incidence rates of the disease.
“These results suggest that poverty plays a significant role in increasing vulnerability to HIV,” Human Sciences Research Council director Olive Shisana said in a statement.
Women will be one key focus of the new strategic plan, which aims to accelerate programmes to empower women and to educate men on women’s rights, the government’s plan said.