South Africa’s Zuma praised for new approach on AIDS, gets $120 million from US

By Donna Bryson, AP
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

South Africa’s Zuma praised for new AIDS approach

PRETORIA, South Africa — The United States is giving South Africa $120 million for AIDS treatment drugs in response to a plea from President Jacob Zuma that underlines his new approach to fighting the epidemic in the country with the world’s heaviest AIDS burden.

His predecessor’s health minister distrusted drugs developed to keep AIDS patients alive, instead promoting beets and garlic treatments. Zuma, who took over after April elections, and his health minister have said former President Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS policies were wrong. Zuma’s government has set a target of getting 80 percent of those who need AIDS drugs on them by 2011.

“This additional funding is in direct response to the government of South Africa’s request,” U.S. Ambassador Donald Gips said in a statement Tuesday, World AIDS Day, when the world takes stock of efforts to fight the epidemic and remembers those who have died.

“We are pleased and honored to respond to President Zuma as South Africa’s partner in this fight,” Gips said.

Gips was to formally announce the additional $120 million in funding at a ceremony later Tuesday at which Zuma is scheduled to give an eagerly awaited speech on AIDS.

Michel Sidibe, head of U.N. AIDS programs, traveled to South Africa for World AIDS Day in part to show support for South Africa’s new direction, saying in an interview that Zuma was “committed to making change happen.”

While Zuma’s intentions have been lauded by AIDS activists who were bitter critics of Mbeki, reports of shortages of the treatment drugs known as ARVs at some South African clinics have raised questions about whether the government has the money and the capacity for a massive rollout.

Kurt Firnhaber, who runs Right to Care, said private groups like his in South Africa have made great strides in providing AIDS treatment, counseling and testing, but had reached their capacity. He said in an interview Monday that over the next few months, he feared waiting lists would have to be created for patients in need of ARVs.

South Africa, a nation of about 50 million, has an estimated 5.7 million people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS — more than any other country in the world. ARVs, or antiretroviral medications, are designed to inhibit the reproduction of HIV in the body.

A U.S. Embassy statement said the $120 million, to be disbursed over two years, was in addition to money South Africa receives under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The program, known as PEPFAR, is a major funder of AIDS programs around the world, particularly in Africa. South Africa is the largest recipient of PEPFAR funds.

U.S. officials had said earlier that PEPFAR’s budget for South Africa, not counting the new funds announced Tuesday, was to grow from $550 million in the current budget year to $560 million for 2010-11.

PEPFAR money in the past has usually been earmarked for prevention, hospice care and other programs in South Africa, not ARVs. U.S. officials have said that with Zuma’s new approach, a new era of cooperation had opened, and that they would be more responsive to the South African government’s agenda.

In some ways, Zuma is an unlikely AIDS hero. In 2006, while being tried on charges of raping an HIV-positive family friend, he was ridiculed for testifying that he took a shower after sex to lower the risk of AIDS. He was acquitted of rape.

Zuma, a one-time chairman of the country’s national AIDS council, may never live down the shower comment. But he has won praise for appointing Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi as his health minister. AIDS activists say Motsoaledi trusts science and is willing to learn from past mistakes.

A Harvard study of the years under Mbeki, who questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, concluded that more than 300,000 premature deaths in South Africa could have been prevented had officials here acted sooner to provide drug treatments to AIDS patients and to prevent pregnant women with HIV from passing the virus to their children.

After Zuma won a power struggle within the governing African National Congress, the party forced Mbeki to step down late last year after almost a decade as president.

Miriam Mhazo, whose Society for Family Health is one of the private groups providing services for AIDS patients in South Africa, said she is looking forward to the government now taking the lead on AIDS. But she said she did not expect quick change. Her own organization, she said, started with three testing and counseling centers, growing to 17 over five years.

“You start in small steps,” she said. Officials in the new government are “starting on the right track.”

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