Fighting HIV and AIDS in South Africa

SimangazoBy Simangazo Mokale

The world has come a long way since we first heard of HIV and Aids in the early eighties when the mysterious new disease emerged which quickly spread across the globe. It claimed many lives and became the leading cause of death in many areas. According to the UNAIDS, there are 39 million people globally were living with HIV in 2022, 1.3 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2022, and 630 000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2022.

As with the early days of COVID-19 there was a lot of fear, disinformation and stigma. Fortunately, today there is a wealth of information and resources which can be easily accessed – however, the sad reality is that HIV and AIDS continues to claim lives. According to the UNAIDS, 29.8 million people were accessing antiretroviral therapy in 2022. HIV and AIDS when left untreated prevents people from living full and productive lives.

A review of our efforts in addressing the HIV and AIDS epidemic over the past 20 years shows that we have made great strides, although more work still needs to be done. South Africa is among the United Nations member states that committed to the agenda to improve the quality of life of all our citizens.

There have been many scientific advances in treatment and antiretroviral therapy has allowed people to live long and productive lives.  There is also a scientific optimism that better treatment options can increase prevention, and progress continues to be made towards a cure and vaccine.

In South Africa among the nearly 8 million people living with HIV, about 5.7 million of them are on treatment, leaving us with a gap of over 2 million people who should be on treatment but are not. Even with a range of treatment and prevention options there have been notable new infections, and it is troubling that statistics show that young people between the ages of 15 to 24 are particularly vulnerable and at risk of contracting the virus.  These statistics are disconcerting considering that the majority of young people are aware of how the virus is spread and access to protection is widespread. Our prevention efforts need to zoom in on young people and to use communication channels and platforms and influencers, to reach young people, which will have a multiplier effect in stemming the rising tide of HIV infections.

In South Africa, we have prioritised providing treatment to those who have HIV and antiretroviral treatment is free to anyone who tests positive, no matter their CD4 count. We are also ramping up efforts to encourage medical male circumcision, and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission.  

As with most things in life, prevention is always better than cure.

It remains a reality that every sexually active South African is potentially at risk of contracting HIV. We call on all South Africans to recognise that HIV and AIDS are preventable and treatable chronic diseases, and that there are affordable options for people living with HIV to have full and happy lives.

Often people are afraid to seek treatment because of the stigma or fear of judgement, this is being addressed through scaled up community mobilisation and awareness on rights and responsibilities of both those who are infected as well as those who are affected.

During the 11th South African AIDS Conference in June 2023, Minister Joe Phaahla outlined how far we have come in tackling HIV. “We are currently at 94 percent of people living with HIV who know their status; 77 percent of those who know their status and are on antiretroviral treatment; and 92 percent of those on treatment have a suppressed viral load,” he said.

He also highlighted that a new set of ambitious targets calls for 95 percent of all people living with HIV to know their HIV status, 95 percent of all people with diagnosed HIV infection to receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 95 percent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy to have viral suppression by 2025.

In keeping with the Global AIDS Strategy we are working to ensure that 95 percent of people at high risk of acquiring HIV have access to and use effective combination prevention options.

The strides we have made in fighting HIV have given rise to new hope but the fight is far from over. The dangers of HIV remain real and the disease continues to ravish through families and communities with consequences for future generations. We must take responsibility for our lives and in the spirit of Ubuntu take the necessary preventative measures to prevent the further spread of the disease.

There is no place for complacency – it is the duty of each person to educate themselves so that we halt prejudice and consolidate our energies towards securing a healthy nation that is able to contribute towards the growth trajectory of our country.

Simangazo Mokale Assistant Director: Communication Resource Centre at Government Communication and Information System