In South Africa, success against HIV offers hope

At the time, I was reporting from villages in Eswatini, then known as Swaziland, where I could only find a handful of people my age – just children and the elderly. I wrote from Johannesburg about the day Nelson Mandela broke a strong taboo and told South Africans that his son had died of AIDS. I told the story of a grandmother named Regine Mamba in Zambia raising 12 orphan grandchildren. And I interviewed courageous and often desperately ill activists like Zackie Achmat, co-founder of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, who struggled with their lives to access treatment.

Nearly two decades later, the fruits of what they fought for were clearly on display, and a reminder – useful right now as another wave of Covid is making this pandemic seem endless – of all that is possible.

Science, in the form of drugs that have suppressed if not defeated a deadly virus; a network of fierce and courageous activists; coordinated international efforts, including massive investment by the US government – they all came together to achieve the miracle of that empty hospital ward, echoing Zambia.

We know how to do this.

In a clinic outside Cape Town, Linda-Gail Bekker, a renowned HIV researcher, almost casually mentioned to me that “our longevity is back”. When I asked her what she meant, she showed me the data: the life expectancy of South Africans, which HIV dropped from 63 in 1990 to a low of 53 in 2004, has increased steadily since treatment began to be dispensed by the public health service. system, and will pass 66 this year.

This was just one of twelve interactions I had that I could not have imagined 25 years ago when I started covering HIV in Africa.

At a public clinic in Soweto on my recent trip, I spent time 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 received their first pills to suppress the virus that day: no more of the grim wait I used to watch as people tracked their immune system’s decline until they qualified for them. rare drugs.