In a year besieged by the deadly global Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, one should be loath to discount the very real public health threat still posed by the nearly 40-year-old HIV-Aids epidemic.
Particularly since, despite crucial gains in 90% of people living with HIV knowing their status in South Africa, government will be the first to admit there’s still room for improvement yet.
Speaking at the all-day commemoration event for World Aids Day in Soweto on Tuesday, under the theme We’re in this Together, Cheka Impilo, Deputy President and SA National Aids Council chairperson, David Mabuza, highlighted both the high and low lights of South Africa’s response to HIV-Aids.
In 2014, South Africa’s adopted the UNAids 90-90-90 targets for this year with an aim to have 90% of people living with HIV in the country know their status and of those, 90% be on antiretroviral treatment and of those, have 90% be virally suppressed.
“As a country, we have made great strides in meeting the first target of ensuring that people know their HIV status. At present, 92% of people living with HIV know their status. Of course there are provinces that are doing better than others, but in general South Africans are testing and this behaviour needs to be encouraged and maintained,” he said.
Further, as part of government’s Cheka Impilo campaign, between April last year to March this year, Mabuza said more than 18 million living with HIV were tested, exceeding the annual target of 14 million.
“Our treatment programme has also reduced number of deaths due to Aids by 60% ... of course there are provinces that are doing better than others. We’ve ensured 73% of people diagnosed with HIV received sustained treatment – the country has treatment gap of 17%. We are encouraged by the country’s performance of reaching 90% viral suppression level is at 88%,” Mabuza told the gathering at the Itireleng Community Health Centre in Soweto.
“Together as a country we can reach the remaining two 90-90 targets, and ensure that HIV and TB are turned from perceived death sentences into manageable and treatable diseases.”
Earlier in the day, Mabuza as well as Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and Gauteng Premier David Makhura – among other high ranking officials – heard the harrowing ordeals of young people who are living with HIV.
Be it from being born with HIV, orphaned as a result of HIV or having endured the trauma of rape, young people emotively spoke out about their lived experiences.
“I’m happy with the courage and confidence [you showed] to step forward and talk,” Mabuza told them. “You can always cry about stigma, you can cry about discrimination – but you’ve already conquered it by stepping out and talking. The fact that you’re here today is a good message to all of us. The only thing that remains is to stay the course – keep strong and keep going.
“For some of you who have grown up in a facility not called home, that presented a lot of challenges. Some of you were born HIV- positive, that presented challenges of its own. But here you are here today,” he continued.
Mabuza said the national theme for Tuesday’s commemoration was linked to the global theme of Global solidarity, shared responsibility.
“It’s a clarion call to all South Africans to make responsible health choices since the social well-being of a community depends on the actions of every individual in that community.”
This year’s World Aids Day comes in the middle of the commemoration of another epidemic – that of gender-based violence.
“It is critical for us to decisively address gender-based violence and femicide, inequality as well as insecurity. We must also ensure that all marginalised, especially young women, have access to education, health and employment. If we fail to do this, all our efforts to address HIV will be futile,” Mabuza emphasised.
Mkhize, who was also moved by the young people sharing their life journeys with HIV, said to them: “There was a time when there was no hope – but even though it’s painful and sad, but important to say let’s not lose hope and move the battle forward.
“Due to the impact of Covid-19, it’s been a difficult task to maintain HIV programme performance while dealing with the pressing urgency of this unprecedented crisis. It is encouraging that two additional districts, Harry Gwala in KwaZulu-Natal and Thabo Mofutsanyane in the Free State, have achieved the 90-90-90 targets at the total population level, during the first six months of this year.”
He encouraged those who still didn’t know their HIV status to test for not only HIV but TB too.
“I would also encourage you to call on your sexual partners, friends, family and children to get tested and to support and embrace those who are initiated on treatment,” Mkhize said.