Lesotho + 2 more

Southern Africa: Signs of hope

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JOHANNESBURG, 9 January (PLUSNEWS) - Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, spent two weeks in Southern Africa last month where he witnessed the dire combination of acute food shortages and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
But as devastating as the impact of HIV/AIDS and hunger was in the region, each of the four countries he visited displayed particular "strengths and hopes", Lewis said at a press briefing on Tuesday.

In Malawi, plans to provide antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for up to 50,000 people brought a "strong quotient of hope". The drugs would be free of charge and delivered through public hospitals and clinics, funded by a grant awarded by the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

"Initially we had envisaged that we would be able to assist 25,000 people but after we found out we could purchase generics, we expect this number to increase to somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000," Dr Biziwick Mwale, director of Malawi's National AIDS Commission, told PlusNews.

But there were still hurdles to overcome before implementing the programme. "We need to develop criteria to determine who will access them and we also need to provide additional services, such as counselling," Mwale said.

The programme would also have to consider ways of providing sustainable food security to HIV-positive people who took the drugs.

Zambia was emerging from the "bleak and dark ages of denial into the light of recognition", Lewis noted. During the previous political regime, nothing had been done to confront the disease.

Since the election of a new president, there had been a dramatic change in the level of political discourse around HIV/AIDS, he added.

Political leadership in Lesotho was "impressive", despite the country's inadequate resources.

"I vividly remember the Prime Minister of Lesotho saying to me 'We're told repeatedly by donors that we don't have capacity. I know we have no capacity; give us some help and we'll build the capacity'," Lewis said.

But this political commitment had not been translated into any visible action. "This approach of constantly complaining and having self-pity about the limited funds is not going to work and bring about change," an AIDS activist who asked not be named, told PlusNews.

So far, the government had only devoted two percent of its national budget to HIV/AIDS, despite pledging its commitment to the 2001 Abuja declaration, the activist said.

The declaration included a commitment by African government leaders to devote 15 percent of their budgets to improving the health sectors.

"We need to see a change from lip service to implementation," the activist added.

In the midst of political turmoil, Zimbabwe had managed to create a "sturdy" municipal infrastructure for dealing with the epidemic. Part of the money from a 3 percent AIDS levy had been channelled down to district and village level. However, more programmes needed to be implemented to take advantage of the existing capacity, Lewis said.

But these signs of hope were being hampered by inadequate resources. "We could prolong and save millions of lives if we had the resources. We don't have the resources," Lewis said.

According to Lewis, a failure by developing countries to contribute more funds could one day be considered criminal.

"This pandemic cannot be allowed to continue, and those who watch it unfold with a kind of pathological equanimity must be held to account. There may yet come a day when we have peacetime tribunals to deal with this particular version of crimes against humanity," he added.

[ENDS]

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