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Vital Signs

'Dawn of a new era' for AIDS in South Africa?

By Mark Tutton, CNN
President Zuma announced new policies to tackle AIDS in South Africa.
President Zuma announced new policies to tackle AIDS in South Africa.
  • South African President Jacob Zuma announces new policies to tackle AIDS
  • There are more HIV positive people in South Africa than any other country
  • Previous governments denied the link between HIV and AIDS

London, England (CNN) -- South Africa's President Jacob Zuma announced new policies to tackle the country's AIDS epidemic on Tuesday.

On World AIDS Day, Zuma spoke of "the dawn of a new era" in a speech where he took a markedly different approach from his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who had questioned the link between HIV and AIDS.

Speaking in the country's capital, Pretoria, Zuma announced policies that would see more people treated for HIV, including treatment for all HIV-positive babies under the age of one. He also announced a campaign to mobilize all South Africans to be tested for HIV.

"We need extraordinary measures to reverse the trends we are seeing in the health profile of our people," he said.

The UN has estimated that 5.7 million South Africans have HIV, more than any other country in the world, and Zuma acknowledged that the disease is responsible for falling life expectancy in the country.

He compared the fight against AIDS to the struggle for liberation against apartheid and said he would be tested for HIV himself as part of the new campaign.

It marks a departure from previous government attitudes towards HIV. Mbeki's health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang had recommended that people with HIV eat garlic to combat the infection.

A 2008 Harvard study estimated that more than 330,000 South Africans died prematurely of AIDS earlier this decade because the government failed to embrace widely accepted AIDS medications.

We need extraordinary measures to reverse the trends we are seeing in the health profile of our people.
--President Jacob Zuma

Phillip Mokoena, of South African AIDS organization Treatment Action Campaign, told CNN that previous governments should have done more to combat AIDS.

"The whole debate about whether HIV causes AIDS was one of the contributing factors that slowed down the process of tackling AIDS," Mokoena told CNN.

"The current government is trying very hard to redress what has happened in the past, which is not going to be an easy task.

"We missed opportunities but new opportunities are opening, and for the first time today we heard our president going public to encourage the public to go for voluntary HIV testing."

Mokoena told CNN that the number of South Africans currently being tested for HIV is actually decreasing. He says the vast majority of those who are tested are women, and that men usually only come forward for testing if they are experiencing symptoms of tuberculosis (TB).

In his speech, Zuma said that 73 percent of South Africans with HIV also have TB. He also announced that under new plans, people with TB and HIV/AIDS would be treated under one roof, which Mokoena said would help encourage HIV testing among men.

Divya Naidoo of the AIDS Foundation of South Africa told CNN that some South Africans are still reluctant to be tested for HIV because off the stigma attached to the disease, particularly in rural areas.

"Even though more people understand HIV, stigma is still a problem," she told CNN. "People don't want to be seen going into a center to be tested because they are afraid other people will see them."

Mokoena said that others are not tested because they do not believe they will receive adequate treatment if they are HIV positive. He said that the government needs to allocate another one billion Rand ($135 million) to its budget for HIV treatment.

Zuma did not say how his government would fund the increased HIV treatment, but the United States has announced it is giving South Africa $120 million over the next two years for AIDS treatment drugs.

Zuma said his policies would come into effect from April 2010.