April 26, 2010 3:03 am

S Africa launches world’s largest HIV test

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South Africa kicked off the world’s largest HIV testing campaign on Sunday with top level political support, in the most tangible sign of a more aggressive effort to tackle Aids by the new administration.

Jacob Zuma, the president, drew a clear line with the reluctance of Thabo Mbeki, his predecessor, to tackle Aids by taking part in the launch in Gauteng of the HIV Counselling and Testing Campaign, which aims to test 15m South Africans in the next 14 months.

The action is designed to boost prevention and provide treatment in the country with one of world’s heaviest burdens of HIV.

The shift has occurred even though Mr Zuma has continued to come under fire over his controversial lifestyle. The president is a polygamist, has fathered at least 20 children and once famously told a court that he had unprotected sex with a woman who was HIV positive and then took a shower to reduce the risk of infection.

However, Michel Sidibe, the head of the United Nations’ Aids agency Unaids, said: “The biggest problem that we had in South Africa in the past was that the doors were closed. The context has completely changed. I don’t think that the personal attitude of the president will be a major challenge.”

He likened the historical significance of Mr Zuma’s embrace of a more active HIV policy to the truth and reconciliation commission established following the collapse of the country’s racist apartheid regime.

He said it would also help inject fresh energy into activities by neighbours including Swaziland, Lesotho, Angola and Mozambique.

He cautioned that the international community needed to support the initiative, with the new testing likely to identify thousands of additional patients requiring costly antiretroviral therapy and other medical assistance. “We should not allow South Africa to fail.”

Mr Sidibe also called on South Africa to do more to change procurement policies in an effort to cut the high prices it currently pays for HIV drugs compared with other countries.

He said a preference to purchase drugs from local manufacturers meant the country was paying nearly 50 per cent more than the international average.

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