African leaders have launched a drive to halt new HIV infections, saying prevention may be the best remaining hope to stop the AIDS pandemic from cutting an ever-deeper swathe across the continent.
The African Union (AU) said programmes on education, counselling, testing and condom distribution could stop 29 million of the 45 million new HIV cases projected to occur worldwide between 2002 and 2010.
“Africa must now seize the moment to stop HIV,” AU Commission Chairperson Alpha Konare said in a news release distributed at a Johannesburg event on Tuesday, highlighting the pressing need to stop more Africans from becoming infected.
While global attention has focused on bringing HIV treatment, including anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, to help Africa combat the world’s worst AIDS crisis, new HIV infections continue unabated across much of the continent.
In 2005, 3.2 million of the five million new HIV infections recorded globally occurred in sub-Saharan Africa - a region struggling with some 26 million HIV-positive people and mourning at least 22 million killed by the disease since the 1980s.
The new AU campaign, launched with several U.N. agencies, aims to highlight the need for HIV prevention during 2006 and to coordinate campaigns to educate people to avoid infection.
The initiative follows the failure of the U.N.‘s “3 by 5” programme, which had hoped to put three million people in the developing world on ARVs by the end of 2005.
While officials said progress was made in broadening access to treatment, only about 1.3 million people were receiving the drugs by the end of the target period.
South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, whose government has been criticised by activists for reacting too slowly to what is the largest national AIDS caseload in the world, said the emphasis on prevention was overdue.
“Over the past years there has been a great deal of engagement over the issues relating only to access to treatment,” Tshabalala-Msimang told a news conference.
She was referring in part to South Africa’s own slow progress toward launching public ARV treatment, which the government had long rejected as too costly and potentially dangerous.
“Let us all support this endeavour to ensure that prevention re-assumes its rightful position as the mainstay of the global response to HIV and AIDS.”
South Africa dropped its official objections to ARVs in 2003 and now has one of the world’s largest ARV programmes - albeit one that reaches only about 100,000 people, or half the number of South Africans AIDS kills every year.
The government meanwhile continues to promote a grassroots response to the epidemic with the emphasis on basic health care, nutrition, abstinence programmes and condom distribution.
The new AU initiative reflects many of these priorities, highlighting the need to both educate people about the virus and provide more testing to stop new transmissions.
To illustrate the need, UNICEF said that every day, nearly 2,000 infants are infected with HIV during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding and 6,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 contract the virus - most of them in Africa.
African pop superstar Angelique Kidjo, who attended the Johannesburg launch, said the AU plan should also target the huge social inequality between men and women in many African countries, which analysts say is a big reason women increasingly bear the brunt of Africa’s AIDS epidemic.
“We Africans have to be able to deal with our problems,” Kidjo, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, said. “Help from outside is alright, but we have to learn to be responsible for our own attitudes.”
Revision date: June 20, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD