South Africa's Roman Catholic bishops have commended the country's government in its new efforts to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS and to diminish the effects of the pandemic after previous policies had faced criticism from church leaders - writes Munyaradzi Makoni.
"The [health] minister's policy indications are largely in line with the points raised over a long period in advocacy by civil society. It is good to see that they are finally finding resonance in this new effort to tackle the pandemic responsibly," the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference said in a 15 April briefing for parliamentarians.
South Africa's health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, in presenting his budget to the parliament on 13 April, reaffirmed statements by President Jacob Zuma on combating HIV and AIDS.
In South Africa, an estimated 5.2 million people out of a population of 49 million are HIV carriers.
Motsoaledi said the health department is committed to reducing new infections by 50 per cent by 2011/12 and to providing anti-retroviral therapy to 80 per cent of the people living with HIV by the end of the same period.
The health department started on 1 April 2010 to give anti-retroviral therapy to pregnant women in order to prevent HIV infection in infants. The anti-retroviral drugs are also provided to people co-infected with tuberculosis and HIV.
HIV-positive pregnant women will now receive dual therapy until after delivery from 14 weeks of pregnancy, and not 28 weeks as previously.
"This will contribute significantly to reducing morbidity, disease progression and mortality associated with TB and HIV/AIDS," the Rev Peter-John Pearson wrote in the report for the Catholic bishops.
He added that holding leaders accountable in terms of prevention is crucial.
During April, South Africa is launching the largest HIV counselling and testing campaign ever undertaken in the country. This seeks to provide counselling and testing to 15 million South Africans by the end of June 2011.
Pearson noted concerns that such a programme is going to weigh heavily on the country's finances as the domestic budget currently provides only part of overall HIV funding. Half of South Africa's estimated US$1 billion annual HIV budget comes from foreign donors.
In February 2004 the Catholic bishops said, "The Catholic Church calls on the South African government to step up its response to AIDS in the country by delivering on its proposed anti-retroviral roll-out."
Although HIV and AIDS were virtually unheard of in Southern Africa in the early 1980s, it is now the worst-affected region in the world.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]