- The South African cabinet today finally approved a comprehensive HIV and AIDS treatment plan, which also provides for anti-retroviral (drug) treatment in the public health sector. Civil society rushed to welcome the long awaited decision.
South Africa is now launching a comprehensive strategy to combat HIV and AIDS, according to a government statement. Civil society, including AIDS victims, trade unions and religious groups, have led a long and bitter fight with the ANC government to make it approve of anti-retrovirals in the public health sector - a fight that was won today.
Patrick Craven, spokesman of the South African congress of trade unions (COSATU), immediately "warmly welcomed" today's cabinet decision to approve a comprehensive HIV and AIDS treatment plan. "We congratulate the government on its bold decision," said Mr Craven.
According to the government, the new plan envisages that, within a year, "there will be at least one service point in every health district across the country and, within five years, one service point in every local municipality." Some areas would be able to start sooner than others, and the Department of Health was to keep the public informed of the progress of the rollout.
These service points were to give citizens "access to a continuum of care and treatment, integrated with the prevention and awareness campaign which remains the cornerstone of the strategy to defeat HIV and AIDS." Anti-retroviral treatment was to be part of this public health service.
According to the government, South Africa had reached a point where it was possible to give this response to HIV and AIDS due to a number of factors. These included a fall in the prices of drugs over the past two years, the building of a critical mass of health workers and scientists within South Africa and the availability of fiscal resources to expand social expenditure in general.
- We are confident that, together, bound by a people's contract for a better life, we shall all continue to make progress in building South Africa into a land our dreams, the government statement said, ending with the phrase: "There is hope!"
Mr Craven of COSATU said this was "a stunning victory for people living with HIV/AIDS, who now have a chance to enjoy many more years of active life." Government's decision would give "a reprieve and a lifeline for thousands of those living with HIV/AIDS and a new hope for a bright future."
- It is also a major victory for all those, including COSATU and the [AIDS activists] Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), who have been campaigning for many years for the universal distribution of antiretroviral medicines, as part of a national prevention and treatment plan, added Mr Craven.
While the fight over government strategies to meet the AIDS pandemic has raged during the last years, an ever-increasing number of South Africans have been infected with HIV. More than 20 percent of the population is believed to have the virus causing AIDS, corresponding to 4-5 million persons.
The South African Department of Health on several occasions has indicated that the mere size on the pandemic would make it an impossible economic effort to provide all the infected people with an anti-retroviral treatment, which always has been costly.
Others, like COSATU, have maintained that it would be equally costly to let almost one forth of the labour force slowly subside to an untreated HIV infection. TAC, which is "fighting for affordable treatment for people with HIV," further has proven that government cost estimates were heavily exaggerated and that the economic gains of en improved public health had been widely ignored.
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