South Africa Still The Hardest Hit By HIV Infections

South Africa has made significant progress in getting people needed AIDS drugs. All over the country, South Africans are finally getting into treatment after two decades of government inaction.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. The International AIDS Conference opens this weekend here in Washington at a time that activists and researchers are saying is a crucial moment for the epidemic. HIV is no longer viewed as a rapidly emerging threat that might cripple some African nations. But around the globe, more than 34 million people are still living with HIV. And last year, according to UNAIDS, two and a half million more people were infected with the virus. South Africa remains the country hardest hit by the epidemic with the largest number of AIDS cases. NPR's Jason Beaubien joins me from Port Shepstone, South Africa. Hello, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hello.

CORNISH: And to start, tell us, where is Port Shepstone?

BEAUBIEN: Port Shepstone is south of Durban. It's on the coast, on the Indian Ocean. It's in Kwazulu Natal, which is the province in South Africa that's been hardest hit by the HIV epidemic. Nationwide, you got about an 18 percent prevalence rate among adults so that 18 percent of adults everywhere in the country are infected with HIV. But here, it's even higher. You go into some clinics, some places where pregnant women are coming in, and they're testing pregnant women in these clinics. And in some parts of Kwazulu Natal, 50 percent of the women who are pregnant that are entering these clinics are testing HIV-positive. And that's really just a sign of how hard this province has been hit by the epidemic.

CORNISH: Now, 12 years ago, the International AIDS Conference was being held in Durban, and that was a controversial moment in the AIDS epidemic, especially for South Africa where the president at the time was questioning whether HIV even causes AIDS. So contrast that period to now in terms of where South Africa stands.

BEAUBIEN: South Africa really has gone through this incredible shift, and it happened over just the last five or six years. The country has gone from being in denial about HIV to now trying to be a leader in Africa on programs. The new health minister is very aggressive. He wants to get out there and get the best programs possible for South Africa. And in 2010, they launched this massive testing drive to try to test everybody across the country. So in a country of 50 million people, they managed to test 15 million more people, which was the first time they'd done like a huge testing drive like this. Very late in the game compared to other countries, but it also brought up 2 million more people who are HIV-positive.

And so all of a sudden, you got 2 million more people who now know that they've got this, and they're coming into the health care system. But there is very much this feeling, like South Africa has now finally turned the tide and is really attempting to deal with this sweeping epidemic. But they've managed to get mother to child transmission of the disease down under 4 percent.

You know, I talked with a doctor yesterday and - just outside of Durban, at a township called Umlazi, at this clinic that's run by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The doctor there, William Mmbara, he told me that things are just completely different now than they were 10 or 12 years ago.

DR. WILLIAM MMBARA: I started working in HIV 11 years ago. When I was working in a hospice, I'll admit patients, and 98 percent of my patients will be dead within a week due to HIV-related illness. But today, 98 of my patients - percent of my patients are living.

BEAUBIEN: So now, he's saying that almost all of his patients are still living. And this also is posing a challenge because it means that there are more people that need to be treated, and this is the new reality in South Africa as they really try to confront this epidemic.

CORNISH: NPR's Jason Beaubien. Jason, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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