The world’s attention has quite rightly been focused on this deadly disease – and on progress made in combating the spreading of the infection. Ebola stories have dominated the news – and have had a major impact on tourism and travel, not only to the affected countries, but to destinations throughout Africa. There is hardly an evening without some or other story on international TV or in the press that is related to the disease.
And yet throughout this period – during each week and every week since March this year – an average of 3 300 people have died of AIDS in South Africa. So, since the beginning of the Ebola epidemic about 120 000 South Africans (three times the capacity of Newlands Rugby Stadium) have died of AIDS.
There are no longer any news stories about AIDS. The media does not cover the thousands of funerals that take place every week. AIDS deaths have become a part of our daily life. And yet each death is a tragedy to someone: to partners, brothers and sisters – to parents who bury their children – and to all the friends left behind. The most severe impact is often on the children of AIDS victims – who go on to join the more than two million orphans who have lost one or both parents to the disease.
Of course, the situation has improved dramatically since the height of the epidemic in 2005 – when 364 000 people died of AIDS. They comprised more than half of the total number of deaths that year. By comparison, “only” 171 000 people are expected to die of the disease this year – now representing a little less than a third of all deaths.
The improvement has been achieved through the rollout of the world’s largest and most effective anti-retroviral programme – which now includes almost two million of the 5.6 million South Africans who are HIV-positive. The government should be congratulated on what is one of the most successful health programmes in the world today.
However, there is no room for the complacency that the successful provision of ARV’s has often brought to the AIDS scene. The following disturbing facts remain:
- Infection rates are no longer dropping: this week more than 5 000 people will be infected with the virus;
- Almost 30% of women attending ante-natal clinics are HIV-positive; and
- Since 2001 more than 3.4 million South Africans have died of AIDS – that is more than the population of Cape Town.
Since the beginning of the epidemic the total must by now be much more than four million. That is more than all of the soldiers that a warlike country like Britain has lost in all of the wars that it has ever fought. Think of that when you consider the display of more than 900 000 poppies flowing from the Tower of London to commemorate the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the First World War. The display of our AIDS dead would be a flood of flowers four times as great. What flower would we choose to remember them?
Why do we not have some such monument in our country to remind us of the immense tragedy that this disease has brought into the lives of so many millions of our people? We dishonour the victims of AIDS by so persistently forgetting them; by so frequently turning our backs on them; by so often denying that they died of the disease. We need to create some point where survivors – the friends, the families, the parents and the children of AIDS victims – can come together to grieve and honour their memory. We need such a monument to remind the living constantly of the threat that AIDS continues to pose to our society.
Remember all this on World AIDS Day. Despite the absence of the media, despite the success of the ARV programme, despite the fall in the number of AIDS-related deaths: there simply is no room for complacency. We have a duty to remember.
By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation
Photo credit: WHO
For comment on statement:
Dave Steward: Executive Director, FW de Klerk Foundation
Phone: 27 21 (0) 930 3622
Megan Dick: Communications Officer, FW de Klerk Foundation
Phone: 27 21 (0) 930 3622