Are provinces ready to take the wheel of South Africa’s HIV response?

Every five years, South Africa develops a new national HIV and TB plan. The latest national strategic plan (NSP) lays out goals for reducing new infections and ensuring that those most at risk of contracting HIV and developing TB are able to get care.

This NSP, which was released in 2017 and will end in 2022, marks the first time that provincial governments and Aids councils have to formulate their own individual strategies, called provincial implementation plans (PIPs). The PIPs have to map out how South Africa’s national plan will be implemented in the health districts of provinces. Previously, NSPs called for provincial strategies but this is the first time that provinces have been tasked with drafting implementation documents.

The move is aimed at letting provinces tailor strategies for HIV and TB that are specific to each province’s needs. But at the time of national plan’s 2017 release, not everyone was behind it.

“A critical flaw in the national HIV and TB plan is that it shifts all the responsibility for its implementation to provinces,” Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) national chairperson Anele Yawa told Bhekisisa in April 2017.

“This is to be supported in principle, but the strategy provides little guidance to provinces on how to do this or how this will be measured. And we know what remains unmeasured may never get done.”

About six months after provinces had to submit their plans to the South African National Aids Council (Sanac) in December last year, the provinces presented approved plans to a 29 June Sanac plenary session.

Watch: What can TB learn from HIV?

South Africa has increasingly moved to a more localised approach to fighting its twin epidemics. But PIPs weren’t the only new addition to the latest NSP. “The plan also required each of the country’s 52 districts to come up with their own implementation plans and it has been a steep learning curve,” Sanac’s NSP Executive Manager Connie Kganakga says.

She explains that many initial district plans were just copy and pasted versions of the national plan. In fact, some provincial documents contained what she calls “thumb-sucked” numbers that don’t reflect what is happening at the district level.

Kganakga explains: “We assumed that because the provinces were involved in the [drafting of the] NSP, that they understood that…alignment [to the NSP] does not mean that provinces must go and duplicate the national plan.”

The national Aids council has since learned that many districts simply don’t have the kind of data provinces need to develop the best plans they can. This means provinces were forced to rely on international estimates when drafting their strategies. It also translated into a scant baseline data against which progress can be measured.

“How do I achieve anything if we don’t have baselines?” Kganakga asks.

Watch: How to test for HIV at home

Provinces submitted several drafts of PIPs before provincially-approved PIPs were presented in June.

The Eastern Cape submitted its PIP before the December 2017 deadline. Later, it made extensive revisions to the document, including changing targets for condom distribution, teenage pregnancy and alcohol abuse.

The head of the Eastern Cape Provincial Aids Secretariat Vuyisa Dayile argues the province’s plan is being amended as needed during implementation.

Sanac says PIPs across the country will be adapted as they near their 2022 deadline to incorporate, for instance, new treatment advances and changes in funding.

“We wish to acknowledge that all these plans are collectively viewed as working documents, so as to enable their ongoing refinement as lessons are learnt through implementation and as new research becomes available,” the body explained in a statement. 

The Eastern Cape’s “working plan”, however, has already run into trouble, Dayile admits. He says a local NGO, for instance, tested primary school students for HIV without their parents’ consent. Reports by EWN in March alleged that the NGO revealed two students’ statuses in front of classmates.

Persons younger than 18 years are considered minors in South Africa, but 2008 amendments to the Children’s Act make special provisions for HIV testing, lowering the age of consent to 12 years. This is provided children demonstrate an understanding of the test’s benefits, risks and social implications.

The health department will now meet with the school governing body, staff and parents to work out how to deal with the problem. The department will also talk to the school about access to contraception, including condoms.

Meanwhile, the TAC’s national organiser Amukelani Maluleke maintains there was a lack of “widespread consultation”, which is reflected in provincial plans.

“[I]f there was a flop at the national level, which need[s] to guide provinces, the PIPs themselves would have been flops even before implementation,” he says.

The HIV lobby group has also criticised the national plan for ignoring the need to strengthen the health sector as a whole to allow it to better deliver HIV and TB services.

“People are not getting adequate services at a local level because of the infrastructural challenges that exist: The shortage of nurses, the lack of specialists…” he says.

“[Care and treatment] at a local level requires specialists to respond to issues of HIV and TB.”

[Updated 5:06 pm 11 September 2018. This story was updated to reflect that approved PIPs had been presented at a 29 June Sanac plenary. This article was also amended to clarify that comments made regarding lessons learned were in reference to district plans.]   

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Roxy de Villiers
Roxy de Villiers was the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism social media content producer and engagement officer. She believes the personal is political and has an interest in reporting on queer health issues. She honed her skills in community media and has also worked with the Rosebank-based community radio station, Radio Today, as a guest newsreader.

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