Flora Mahano flips through her AIDS patient book, name after name crossed out in bright green ink.
Flora Mahano flips through her AIDS patient book, name after name crossed out in bright green ink. “These are all dead,” Mahano said on Wednesday as the pages ruffled past, a brutal testament to the toll that AIDS has taken in this sprawling township outside of Johannesburg. “We have two dead in one house, another across the road…AIDS is crippling the whole area.” Mahano’s AIDS service organization, dubbed “Good Hope,” exists on little more than donations and willpower and has less than 500 rand ($78) in the bank. The best most of her patients can hope for is a decent funeral. On Thursday, South Africa will seek to begin turning the tide against its devastating AIDS epidemic with the first major launch of AIDS-fighting anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs in the public sector. But while the introduction of ARVs in five hospitals in Gauteng province around Johannesburg marks a step forward after years of government foot-dragging on the issue, Mahano says it comes too late for the sick and dying in her care. “AIDS is running fast here, like a tornado,” the social worker said, adding that Tembisa’s staggering poverty will prevent many people from accessing even free drugs. “Who is going to transport them? They don’t even have food to eat. How are they going to get to the hospital?” South Africa is the hardest hit country in the world by HIV/AIDS. An estimated 5.3 million of its 45 million people are infected with the disease, which activists say kills at least 600 South Africans every day. Under intense domestic and international pressure, the government last year dropped its long-standing opposition to ARV drugs and announced plans for national treatment — with richer provinces such as Gauteng leading the way. AIDS pressure groups have hailed the drug launch but many still worry that President Thabo Mbeki — who has questioned orthodox views on AIDS and drug treatment in the past — is not fully behind the treatment program.Mbeki said on Tuesday it would be “irresponsible” to suggest that ARVs were the answer to South Africa’s AIDS crisis. “You need to engage in a totality of measures to make sure that you better manage the health of the people,” Mbeki said. Cynics have questioned the sincerity of the ARV launch just two weeks before national elections in which Mbeki is seeking a second five-year term. DARK FUTURE For Sibongile Gwaza, almost any measure would do. Sitting in her tiny two-room Tembisa house, her gaunt face bearing the marks of advanced HIV-infection, the 43-year-old Gwaza cuddles her three young sons and explains how she is preparing them for the future. “I tell them they must be satisfied with whatever they receive, even if it is just a bite to eat,” Gwaza said. Currently, Gwaza relies on Good Hope’s deliveries of bread and canned foods to keep her family fed. Her husband has already died from AIDS, and she is unsure whether the medications she currently receives from the local clinic — mostly pain killers and diarrhea medicine — are doing her any good. Asked if she knew about the government’s launch of ARVs, she quietly shakes her head — a sign her shy, smiling children will likely soon join South Africa’s growing legions of AIDS orphans. Another Good Hope patient, 22-year-old Danisele Mbatha, is less fatalistic. She hopes to find out soon whether the Nevirapine she was given in childbirth prevented the spread of her HIV to her 11-month-old son Lungile, and says she will be first in line when ARVs are made available at Tembisa’s local hospital later in the year. “They make you better and stronger, and I am going to try to get some.”(Source: Reuters Health, March 2004)