Ten years on, the Aids struggle has much to celebrate

2013-06-16 14:00

A decade ago, South African scientists, healthcare workers and Aids activists met in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, to discuss ways to halt the Aids pandemic.

The first Durban conference in August 2003 took place under the banner “Dira Sengwe”, a Setswana phrase meaning take action.

At the time, an estimated 370 000 people were dying each year of Aids-related illnesses because they couldn’t afford the antiretrovirals (ARVs) only available in the private sector.

Aids activists had failed to get government to provide the life-prolonging drugs to those reliant on state healthcare, and former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was sticking to her garlic-and-beetroot regimen.

Those who told their families their HIV status were cast out and many murdered. So the South African Aids Conference was formed 10 years ago in order for scientists and people infected with, and affected by, the virus to come together to take action.

A decade later, those who met in 2003 will be meeting again in Durban this week. This time the motivation is to celebrate, and build on successes and breakthroughs in HIV treatment in the past few years.

Professor Koleka Mlisana, who chairs the conference, said there was a lot to celebrate, referring to a recent breakthrough in which South African scientists discovered that two HIV-positive women from KwaZulu-Natal had developed powerful antibodies that could kill up to 88% of HIV strains from around the world.

This discovery could be the key to finding an HIV vaccine.

Mlisana explained that there have also been other successes in HIV prevention.

“Far fewer mothers are transmitting HIV to their newborn babies than in the past, something we should be proud of,” she said.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, president of the SA Medical Research Council, agreed: “We are on the verge of eliminating HIV transmission from mother to child.”

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