In South Africa, success against HIV offers hope of defeating another virus

At that time, I reported from villages in Eswatini, then known as Swaziland, where I found no more than a handful of people my age – only children and the elderly. I wrote from Johannesburg about the day Nelson Mandela broke a powerful taboo and told South Africans that his son had died of AIDS. I told a story about a grandmother named Regine Mamba in Zambia who raised 12 orphaned grandchildren. And I interviewed brave and often desperately ill activists, such as Zackie Achmat, co-founder of the South African Treatment Action Campaign, who fought their lives to get treatment.

Almost two decades later, the fruits of what they were fighting for were exposed to life, and a reminder – as useful at this time because another wave of Covid seems endless – of what is possible.

Science in the form of drugs that suppressed, if not defeated, the deadly virus; a network of savage, brave activists; coordinated international efforts, including massive US government investment – all together created a miracle of the empty, echoing Zambian hospital ward.

We know how to do it.

At a clinic outside Cape Town, Linda-Gail Bekker, a renowned HIV researcher, mentioned to me almost by the way that “our longevity is back.” When I asked what she meant, she showed me the data: The life expectancy of South Africans, who were pushed by HIV from 63 in 1990 to a low of 53 in 2004, has been steadily increasing since public health care began to provide treatment. system and will exceed 66 this year.

It was just one of a dozen interactions I’ve had 25 years ago when I started working on HIV in Africa.

At a public clinic in Soweto, I spent time on a recent trip with a community health worker named Nelly Zulu, who told me that when people test positive for HIV at the clinic where she works, they get the first virus suppression pills of the day: no more gloomy waiting, which I watched as people watched the decline of their immune system until they qualified for the rare drugs.

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