Page last updated at 05:16 GMT, Saturday, 29 November 2008

UK funds for S Africa Aids fight

By Susan Watts
BBC Newsnight

Aids hopes of SA's new health minister

The UK is to give South Africa's new Health Minister Barbara Hogan 15m to help combat Aids in the country.

Ms Hogan was appointed health minister in September to help shake up a health service in crisis.

South Africa has one of the most severe HIV/Aids epidemics in the world, with 800 people a day dying a day from Aids-related disease.

The policy of former President Thabo Mbeki has been directly blamed for 330,000 Aids deaths in the country.

President Mbeki denied the scientific consensus that Aids is caused by a viral infection that can be controlled by powerful drugs.

He rejected these drugs and as a consequence most adults and children infected with HIV in the country did not get the drugs that could have helped them.

A team from Harvard University quantified the effect of Mbeki's stance on HIV/Aids, blaming his policies for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

More protection for mothers and babies: Better availability of free tests for mothers during pregnancy, and anti-HIV drugs for pregnant mothers and children
National HIV awareness campaign: Information on safe-sex and HIV health issues will be sent out via radio, newspaper, text messages and street posters
Better nurses, doctors and clinics: Medical staff and managers helped to improve the quality of advice and service to patients, and staff morale improved through stronger incentives for quality care
HIV and Aids watchdog: National Aids Council strengthened and given a clearer remit to hold all parts of government to account

The hope is that Ms Hogan will change all that.

On Monday, World Aids Day, she is to announce a return to the National Aids plan, dropped under Mr Mbeki's rule, at a stadium event designed to mobilise the nation in the fight against the epidemic.

The high-profile media campaign to raise awareness is planned, including persuading famous people to have themselves tested for HIV.

UK International Development minister Ivan Lewis said it was vital that Ms Hogan succeed in overturning myths about HIV/Aids.

He said: "For too long, South Africa has been fighting Aids with its hands tied behind its back.

"Those ties have now been removed and the country has a fantastic opportunity to finally turn the tide in its struggle against this epidemic.

"Barbara Hogan has set a bold and exciting vision on HIV and Aids and that is why the UK is fully committed to working with her as she embarks on this new approach."

UK Minister Ivan Lewis on why Britain is giving money

There is now a critical window of opportunity before next spring's elections in South Africa.

Jacob Zuma, leader of the ANC (African National Congress) is widely anticipated to become the new president at those elections, when cabinet positions will once again be up for grabs.

The unspoken fear is that priorities could switch back to the previous position of denying the HIV/Aids link.

Early treatment

Professor Diana Gibb is one of the world's leading authorities on HIV and its transmission from mother to child in developing countries.

She told Newsnight that getting anti-HIV drugs to babies early is vital in saving lives.

Dr Gibb played a key role in a trial carried out jointly by a British and South African team which found dramatic reductions in mortality in infected babies if they are treated early, rather than waiting until the children show clinical symptoms.

The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were so compelling that they have changed international guidelines on how best to treat HIV-infected babies.

But how to make best use of those findings is a challenge that epitomises the difficulties ahead for South Africa and Ms Hogan.

Hospitals need to find and identify infected babies as early as possible, perhaps by testing as they arrive for immunisations and then administer the necessary drugs.

And there are difficult diplomatic choices too, for example whether to stick with expensive drugs from named drugs companies - sometimes in liquid form that is hard to transport.

The alternative is to opt for cheaper generic versions in tablet or powder form - but that risks upsetting drugs company sensitivities.

It may sound easy, but in practice it is a heavy demand for a health service whose skilled staff are leaving the country and struggling after years of inadequate funding and support.

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Mbeki blamed for 330,000 deaths
07 Nov 08 |  Africa

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