South African President Jacob Zuma marked World AIDS Day today by recognizing the gravity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in his country, and announcing a new policy to treat all HIV-positive babies under the age of one. He also said that drug treatment of pregnant women would begin earlier, in line with new treatment guidelines issued only yesterday by the World Health Organization.
His speech stands as a refreshing counterpoint to the views of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki who was known for his AIDS-denialism and for retaining ‘Dr. Beetroot’ Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as his health minister. As Nature Medicine has reported, she is renowned for advocating lemon juice, garlic and beet root as a treatment. Mbeki’s lax approach to HIV/AIDS treatment contributed to more than 330,000 premature deaths, according to a pair of recent studies.
The country remains the hardest hit in the world: 5.7 million have been diagnosed with the virus, and more than 2.4 million children so far have been orphaned by the disease.
Zuma did not lay out how the country will pay for the new roll-out of anti-retroviral drugs, which currently reach 700,000 HIV-positive people in South Africa. But the US also today pledged to contribute $120 million to the effort over the next two years, on top of the hundreds of millions donated to the country for HIV/AIDS efforts each year, largely through PEPFAR.
Zuma also said he would himself get tested for HIV, an announcement that carries a lot of clout in a country where many fail to get tested.
“We need extraordinary measures to reverse the trends we are seeing in the health profile of our people,” he said.
Image: Wikimedia Commons