Aids researcher warns of complacency

A leading Aids researcher has slammed southern African governments for being slow, inadequate and unimaginative in their response to the Aids epidemic.

Prof Alan Whiteside, head of the University of Natal’s Health Economics and Aids Research Division, also criticised international agencies, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for not delivering as they should.

He told delegates to a regional conference on Aids and governance in Cape Town on Wednesday that he was ”so angry” at the way they were dealing with the disease.

”Start being imaginative about how you’re going to respond, because we have to do it, and we have to do it now,” he urged representatives of ten Southern African Development Community governments.

The three-day conference is organised by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa and the UNDP.

Whiteside said 30-million people were living with HIV/Aids in sub-Saharan Africa, and the number was growing by the day. The picture in southern Africa was ”extremely concerning” . In South Africa alone, by 2009 a million people, or a fortieth of the entire population, would require treatment and care.

The experience of Uganda, where Aids orphans were peaking only ten years after the onset of the epidemic, showed it was an issue that required long term planning ”and frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I have yet to see it.”

”I hope if any of you were complacent you’re not now,” he said.

Decreasing life expectancy — estimated at as low as 29 years in Botswana — effectively meant the development clock was being turned back.

The United Nations’ millenium development goals were not worth the paper they were written on, Whiteside said, dramatically tearing up a document to illustrate his point, and the UNDP was ”not doing anything about it”.

There were an estimated half a million Aids orphans in South Africa at the moment, and communities caring for them were being stretched to the limit. By 2010 orphans would account for 15 to 25% of all children in sub-Saharan Africa, growing up unsocialised, unloved and uneducated.

Lesotho would be one of the countries at 25%.

”And I have to ask you, what happens in a country where 25% of children do not have parents? And I have to ask, why are we not asking that question and trying to answer it?”

Whiteside also said he was concerned that researchers were underestimating the possible impact of Aids, and that factors such as food shortages caused either by drought or the Aids deaths of farmers could push the epidemic to unexpected heights.

Earlier, in a keynote address to the conference, Deputy President Jacob Zuma said South Africa had a comprehensive HIV/Aids strategy and action plan, while the New Partnership for African Development had provided the ”much-needed continental political will and commitment” paramount to overcoming Aids.

He said that in the quest for medical solutions to the epidemic, one could not ignore the fact that poverty and hunger made it more devastating.

It was critical that the response include nutrition, poverty reduction and improved food security.

”To us these are some of the key points to be focused on, where more research, more effort, should go to,” he said. In an apparent reference to calls for a national antiretroviral treatment plan for people with HIV/Aids, he said: ”How do they take the drugs on an empty stomach? In fact the drugs kill them even quicker.” – Sapa

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Ben Maclennan
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