South Africa, struggling to treat the world’s highest number of HIV/AIDS patients, plans to train more nurses and try to coax back those who have moved abroad, the health minister said on Tuesday.
Officials say a shortage of nurses and other skilled medical personnel is the major obstacle to rolling out life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs to around 5 million people with HIV infection.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told a meeting of retired nurses near Johannesburg that she and her provincial counterparts sitting on the National Health Council had agreed a set of measures to increase the number of nurses.
One was to revive training of “enrolled nurses” - a grade below professional nurses who do nonclinical work.
“We are also going to reopen some of the nursing colleges that were closed down in the past to improve our training output,” she said.
Tshabalala-Msimang flies to London this weekend to meet South African nurses drawn by the higher pay available in Britain but now interested in moving back home. She said she was also keen to open the way for nurses in South Africa’s large private health sector to move back to public hospitals.
A Nursing Bill put before parliament last week includes provision for a one-year community service placement for nurses, which would allow the health department to place trained nurses in areas which were struggling to fill jobs through the usual recruitment system.
Health department spokesman Sibani Mngadi said low staffing levels were the main challenge to South Africa’s rollout of free antiretroviral drugs within the public health service.
After years of campaigning by HIV/AIDS activists, the government announced plans in 2003 to supply free antiretrovirals.
But the rollout has been slow due in part to poor health services and by the end of March only 42,000 South Africans were estimated to be receiving the drugs through the public sector.
Tshabalala-Msimang herself has attracted criticism from the vocal pro-treatment lobby for questioning the efficacy of antiretroviral drugs and her promotion of diets to fight AIDS through the consumption of foods like beetroot and African potatoes.
Revision date: July 4, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.