PRETORIA, South Africa – South Africa announced ambitious new plans Tuesday for earlier and expanded treatment for HIV-positive babies and pregnant women, a change that could save hundreds of thousands of lives in the nation hardest hit by the virus that causes AIDS.
President Jacob Zuma – once ridiculed for saying a shower could prevent AIDS – was cheered as he outlined the measures on World AIDS Day.
The new policy marks a dramatic shift from former President Thabo Mbeki, whose health minister distrusted drugs developed to keep AIDS patients alive and instead promoted garlic and beet treatments. Those policies led to more than 300,000 premature deaths, a Harvard study concluded.
The changes are in line with new guidelines issued a day earlier by the World Health Organization that call for HIV-infected pregnant women to be given drugs earlier and while breast-feeding. By treating all HIV-infected babies, survival rates should also improve for the youngest citizens in South Africa, one of only 12 countries where child mortality has worsened since 1990, in part due to AIDS.
Zuma compared the fight against HIV, which infects one in 10 South Africans, to the decades-long struggle his party led against the apartheid government, which ended in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela in the country’s first multiracial vote.
“At another moment in our history, in another context, the liberation movement observed that the time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight,” Zuma said. “That time has now come in our struggle to overcome AIDS. Let us declare now, as we declared then, that we shall not submit.”
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that new infections are outpacing the gains from treating people with the HIV virus. He said that more must be done urgently to reach the U.N. goal of providing universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010.
On Tuesday, in response to a plea from Zuma, the United States announced it was giving South Africa $120 million over the next two years for AIDS treatment drugs. That is in addition to $560 million the U.S. has already pledged to give South Africa in 2010 for fighting AIDS.
Mark Heywood, executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign, an independent group that has challenged the South African government on AIDS, said the Zuma speech marked a departure in thinking that would have a global impact.
“It was a very good speech in all its aspects – the empathy he showed, what he said about prevention and the need to test for HIV was all very positive,” Heywood said.