Durban — As the world praises South Africa's HIV/AIDS intervention programmes, Deputy President Cyril Ramahosa has implored delegates gathered in Durban for the 21st International AIDS Conference, to use the gathering to understand the gravity of the epidemic.
He also called on them to find innovative solutions to ensure that the world achieves an AIDS-free society.
The five-day conference, organised by the International AIDS Society, has attracted over 12 000 delegates from 180 countries across the world. The first day saw some protests, but no disruptions to the actual conference programme were reported.
Speaking at the official opening press conference earlier on Monday, Deputy President Ramaphosa said since South Africa last hosted the International AIDS Conference in 2000, the world has turned the tide on HIV and AIDS.
"Great progress has been made across the globe, particularly in regions most affected by the epidemic like eastern and southern Africa.
"Of the 17 million people currently on treatment worldwide, nearly 10.3 million are in this region. The latest information from UNAIDS is that the number of people on treatment in eastern and southern Africa has more than doubled since 2010," the Deputy President said.
AIDS related deaths in the region have decreased by more than a third over the same period. Mother to child transmission of HIV has been dramatically reduced.
In South Africa, great strides have been made to curb AIDS related deaths and this has been seen in the drastic drop in the number of new HIV infections from more than 500 000 in 2004 to an estimated 330 000 in 2013.
The rate of babies being born with HIV decreased significantly from 8% in 2008 to 2.6% in 2013. The number of children 0‒14 years living with HIV and on antiretroviral treatment has increased from only 42 000 in 2009 to 166 000 in 2014. Over three million of the six million estimated people who are living with HIV in South Africa are receiving treatment.
However, Deputy President Ramaphosa told reporters at the Durban International Convention Centre that despite these successes, the fight against HIV, AIDS and TB was not over.
"Too many people living with HIV do not know their status. Too many do not have access to treatment. The rate of infection remains stubbornly high, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.
"We know, for example, that adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 accounted for around 20% of new infections globally last year. In sub-Saharan Africa, this group accounted for about a quarter of new infections."
He urged world leaders to provide testing and counselling services to the general population, expand treatment to reach all those who need it, and stressed the need to significantly improve prevention efforts.
"We need to design and implement programmes that address the needs of key populations that are at greatest risk of infection, including sex workers, people who inject drugs and men who have sex with men," he said.
Those who are gathering in Durban needed to recognise the social and economic drivers of the AIDS epidemic and implement programmes to address these.
"We are optimistic that the deliberations here in Durban will yield commitments from the international community to invest in research and development that could lead to new options for a vaccine and a functional cure."
UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon lauded South Africa's efforts in the fight against the disease, saying the country's policies and political will were bearing fruit.
"We believe your country is genuinely dedicated to this cause and we want to thank you for that and your leadership in this regard," Ban said.
He noted that access to treatment and prevention has been at the forefront of the South African government AIDS policy since 2009.
The official opening ceremony is scheduled for Monday evening with speakers to include Ramaphosa and Ban, among others.