South Africa Intensifies AIDS Campaign as New HIV Infections Start to Slow

South Africa is stepping up an anti- AIDS campaign that is slowing the spread of HIV, which affects 5.7 million of its citizens, more than any other nation, and hampers growth of Africa’s biggest economy.

The number of people receiving AIDS drugs at public hospitals has more than doubled to about 1 million since 2008, the year the ruling African National Congress ousted Thabo Mbeki as the nation’s president. Unlike Mbeki, President Jacob Zuma took a public test for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, saying he hoped “to eradicate the silence and stigma that accompanies this epidemic.”

With AIDS curbing economic growth by as much as 1.5 percentage points a year, according to the Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, the government used World Aids Day today to announce it is accelerating a plan to test 15 million people for HIV by June. The project was slowed by the hosting of the World Cup soccer tournament and a nurses’ strike this year.

“There’s a lot more openness around accepting the magnitude of the problem,” Dorothy Mbori-Ngacha, the United Nations Children’s Fund’s senior HIV/AIDS specialist for eastern and southern Africa, said in a Nov. 23 interview in Johannesburg. “How long until you get a serious reversal? It’s going to take a long time.”

About 190,000 South Africans are likely to die from AIDS- related illnesses this year, down 10,000 to 15,000 from 2009 and 70,000 to 80,000 from the peak in 2006, preliminary figures from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Actuarial Research show.

‘Noticeable Drop’

“There has been quite a noticeable drop in the number of deaths, which is probably due to the fairly extensive roll-out of anti-retroviral drugs,” Rob Dorrington, the center’s director, said on Nov. 29.

The government has increased the number of facilities accredited to dispense the AIDS drugs and trained more than 3,000 nurses to administer them, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said today.

Since April, South Africa has embarked on the “largest testing campaign ever undertaken,” he told a World AIDS Day rally at Mkhondo in the eastern Mpumalanga province. As of yesterday, about 4.7 million people had taken an HIV test and more than 800,000 tested positive, he said, while 5.5 million people received counseling.

‘Take Responsibility’

“I would like to challenge those who do not know their HIV status to take responsibility, to be tested,” he said.

The cost of South Africa’s AIDS programs may escalate to as much as 35 billion rand ($4.9 billion) in the year through March 2016, from about 16 billion rand last year, according to a government-commissioned study released last month by the Cape Town-based Centre for Economic Governance and AIDS in Africa and the Washington-based Results for Development Institute.

Even with the most aggressive anti-AIDS program, 5 million new infections are likely over the next two decades, according to the report.

“The HIV/AIDS epidemic is deeply entrenched in South Africa, having already reached levels that make a complete reversal extremely difficult, if not impossible, in the coming years,” according to the study.

Garlic, Olive Oil

Mbeki’s administration resisted the provision of anti- retroviral drugs, saying they were expensive and potentially toxic. His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, urged those with AIDS to eat garlic, beetroot and olive oil and backed the use of traditional medicines to combat the disease.

The lack of government action prompted Anglo American Plc, the largest investor in South African mining, and several other companies to provide free treatment to their workers. It was more cost-effective than having to train replacements for those who died or were too sick to work, they said.

The failure to provide treatment may have caused the premature deaths of more than 330,000 people from 2000 to 2005, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Anti-retrovirals both tackle AIDS and prevent its transmission from mother to unborn child. South Africa is one of a handful of countries where maternal and child mortality has increased since the 1990s, with AIDS accounting for 35 percent of deaths in children under the age of 5, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS said in its annual report.

After Mbeki left “we got in people in the Ministry of Health who had the commitment, who understood what the issues were, who had zest,” Nonkosi Khumalo, chairwoman of the Treatment Action Campaign, the country’s main AIDS activist group, told reporters in Johannesburg on Nov. 22. “That spirit continues even now. It shows how far South Africa has come as a country.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Cohen in Cape Town at mcohen21@bloomberg.net; Franz Wild in Johannesburg at fwild@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg in Jerusalem at phirschberg@bloomberg.net.

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