South Africa faces “national wipe-out” unless it steps up its war on HIV/AIDS, a business leader said on Wednesday as a study showed education - one of society’s building blocks - caving under the epidemic.
“Defeat in this war means national wipe-out,” Clem Sunter, former chairman and CEO of mining giant Anglo American, told a national AIDS conference in Durban. “If you wipe out all of the 30- to 40-year olds, you basically have no country.”
South Africa has the world’s highest HIV/AIDS caseload, with more than 5 million of its 45 million people infected with the virus, according to U.N. estimates.
The death toll is rising, particularly among people in their 30s and 40s, who are at the most economically productive stages of their lives.
New statistics released on Wednesday at the Durban conference, which has drawn about 4,000 researchers, medical workers and activists, show the heavy toll on South Africa’s educational system.
A study by the Human Sciences Research Council revealed almost 13 percent of South Africa’s teachers had HIV infection, jumping to 21.4 percent among teachers between 25 and 35 years old.
In 2004, roughly 4,000 teachers, or 1.1 percent of the national total, died from HIV-related causes and 85 percent of those deaths were among people under the age of 45, researcher Olive Shisana said. AIDS was striking particularly hard at teachers in poor rural areas where education needs are greatest.
While older teachers retire, younger teachers are dying - leaving the question of who will take charge of educating the country’s youth, she said. “The system is going to be haemorrhaging at the bottom as well as the top,” she said.
Sunter, head of the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund and a leading HIV/AIDS activist in business, said South Africa is still moving too slowly, hobbled by a lack of clear information and decisive leadership.
“At this point we do not have a united nation versus HIV/AIDS in this country,” Sunter said. “We’ve got to establish a proper war cabinet…we need one that unites the nation and one that does things.”
Critics frequently accuse President Thabo Mbeki’s government of failing to grasp the severity of the AIDS crisis and playing down the key weapon against it - antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.
While South Africa bowed to pressure two years ago and introduced a national ARV treatment programme, activists say the roll-out has been painfully slow with just over 40,000 enrolled.
A further 50,000 South Africans receive ARVs through private medical schemes but medical analysts say this still falls far short of the estimated 700,000 people whose lives could be prolonged and improved by immediate access to the drugs.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang revived controversy on Tuesday when she again publicly questioned the role of ARVs in South Africa’s AIDS strategy, saying other options such as traditional medicine and basic nutrition are equally important.
Shisana said the impact of HIV/AIDS on South Africa’s students is being reviewed with a formal report expected next month. But she said researchers are likely to produce equally grim news, backing calls for quicker ARV roll-out, more condom access and an intensified public education campaign.
“Many children are going to become infected and they are likely to die before they reach the end of their educational career,” Shisana said.
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD