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South Africa's ambitious plan to tackle HIV/AIDS

For more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of South Africans languished and died in the shadow of AIDS as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki, consistently denied that HIV causes the disease. As a result, South Africa has the world’s highest rate of infection, with more than 18 percent of the adult population affected.

But the government has made an abrupt turn-around under the regime of its new president, Jacob Zuma. Zuma announced last fall that South Africa had done a great disservice to its people through its policy of denial and vowed to make HIV testing, treatment and prevention services widely available to the population.

He’s followed through on the pledge, with a very ambitious plan to scale up testing to as many as 15 million adults and provide treatment to those who test positive, according to a front page story in today’s New York Times.

“It’s the first time one country has scaled up so quickly, to so many people,” Michele Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, commented in the story.

The South African Finance Ministry says it expects antiretroviral drugs to become available to more than a million people in the new few years, double the current number, according to the Times report. The government has budgeted an additional $1 billion for the program.

Harvard researchers estimated that as many as 365,000 people in South Africa died in the last decade because they did not have access to this life-prolonging therapy.

“If we had acted more than a decade ago, we might not have been in this situation where we are,” Aaron Motsoaledi, MBChB, the country’s health minister, was quoted as saying in the article. “Obviously, we did lose time.” He has called AIDS “this monster among us.”

It is heartening that South Africa has finally come to grips with AIDS after years of following a tragic, misguided national policy. The country’s open approach to the disease, with Zuma encouraging everyone to know their HIV status and respond accordingly, will hopefully be a guiding force for other African countries now.

Previously: South Africa finally comes to grips with AIDS

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