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Every year on the 1st of December, we commemorate the lives lost due to HIV/AIDS and raise awareness of this deadly epidemic while also showing support to people living with HIV/AIDS. 

The World Health Organisation’s regional office for Africa reports that 25.7 million people in Africa are living with HIV. 8.2 million of them are living in South Africa, therefore making South Africa the leading country in Africa and globally with the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Why Is South Africa In The Lead? 

Despite being in the top 5 countries in Africa with the best education systems and leading in science and technological advancements, South Africa is still failing to lower the increasing HIV/AIDS statistics. 

Public health specialist at Clinton Health Access Initiative, Vusani Tshivhase says, 

‘’it might look like the HIV space hasn’t changed and infections keep on increasing but South Africa has made great strides in tackling its HIV epidemic in recent years and now has the biggest HIV treatment programme in the world.’’ 

Tshivhase also points out that these efforts are largely funded from South Africa’s resources. Infection rates have decreased substantially in the last couple of years. 

Answering the question of why we’re still in the lead, Tshivhase says,
‘’The uptake of the current prevention measures such as PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis), PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) are slow and we need continue emphasising the use of condoms’’

HIV Activist Mpho Thaba suggests that for South Africa to have lower numbers of HIV infections, we need to share more information with communities, especially those in the rural areas about the virus and schools. Thaba also suggests that developing cell phone Apps that freely educate about HIV and AIDS.

Tshivhase believes that if we implement prevention measures (PrEP, HIV regular testing, screening of STIs and circumcision) and ensure that people have access to these measures, we might be able to reduce infection to zero in the next 10 years or so. The trick is in strengthening prevention and behavioural changes in the communities. 

Are Hospitals Sufficiently Equipped To Deal With HIV/AIDS Cases?

Thaba states that ‘’as a person who uses public facilities, hospitals are equipped to deal with the severe HIV/AIDS cases, however, we need to factor in that the HIV stigma is still an issue. To deal with this, the government has implemented a great plan of not regularly going to clinics or hospitals. We now get SMS notifications to collect our meds in our local pharmacies.’’ 

The South African Business Coalition On Health & AIDS (SABCOHA) adds, 

‘’public hospitals and clinics are fairly equipped to deal with severe HIV/AIDS cases, however, the issues arise in small facilities which cater for large communities where there are limited resources (human resources & material resources) to render comprehensive and total health care to clients.’’ 

They continued to share that other facilities are operating only on weekdays and clients seeking urgent medical attention (e.g. Rape) are unable to access treatment services (PEP, emergency contraceptives) and end up being infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

An Era of COVID-19 & The HIV/AIDS Epidemic.

COVID-19 has affected several health services across the globe. Which has been estimated to set us back a few years in terms of the progress made. 

‘’The biggest issue was shifting of resources to fight COVID-19 infections. This led to shortages of healthcare workers available for other health services. Also fear of getting infected played a role in people not wanting to visit a clinic. This meant they wouldn’t get their medication. Lastly, the lockdowns exacerbated the access issue,’’ explains Tshivhase. 

According to SABCOHA, since the increase in COVID-19 infections and its mortality in 2020, people developed a fear of going out to public clinics and hospitals because of the fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus. 

Some of the facilities have been closing intermittently due to new covid-19 cases amongst health care workers and clients (patients) who were unable to get their HIV treatment and other chronic medications which impacted negatively on their health as the virus kept replicating and weakening their immune systems. There was a limited number of HIV treatments in the health care facilities as COVID-19 exhausted the department financially.

Top 5 Misconceptions About HIV/AIDS.

Tshivhase and Thaba named some of the most popular misconceptions about HIV/AIDS:

  • HIV/AIDS is a death sentence.
  • People who have it are promiscuous and cannot build a family.
  • You can tell if someone has HIV/AIDS by looking at them.
  • Straight people don’t have to worry about HIV infection.
  • Those who test negative for HIV can have unprotected sex.

Combating The Virus  

SABCOHA took us through how the PrEP- HIV medication works and the newest ways of treating HIV; 

PrEP is taken by HIV negative people and those at significant risk of acquiring HIV infection before exposure to HIV infection. This includes:

  • Key population: most at risk of HIV- sex workers, men who have sex with men (MSM), Adolescent girls and young women (AGYW), intravenous drug users (IDUs), transgender people, prisoners, serodiscordant couples, individuals with multiple partners
  • Bottom line: ANYONE who perceives themselves to be at substantial risk

Generally, South Africans are accepting and appreciating PrEP as a method of HIV prevention, however, a small volume feels that it encourages people to engage in risky behaviours believing they are protected with PrEP. It is the responsibility of health care workers initiating PrEP to ensure thorough counselling on the use of PrEP and the importance of condomising while using PrEP as individuals to protect themselves from contracting STIs and/or unplanned pregnancy.

Wrapping Up

HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence, there is still life on the other side of the diagnosis. Remember to always use protection and go for HIV testing once every three months.