Unlike many others, this week has been filled with news on HIV and AIDS. A long awaited breakthrough finally came in insurance claims on AIDS-related deaths, writes Akhona Cira in JournAIDS.
The Treatment Action Campaign’s (TAC) Zackie Achmat announced his intention to discontinue being the TAC’s chairperson and Minister of Correctional Services Ngconde Balfour has broken his customary silence about the effect of the epidemic on prisoners, releasing shocking statistics on the number of those infected with HIV.

The Cape Argus reported a “victory for South Africans living with HIV and AIDS” now that the life insurance industry will no longer be able to deny insurance payouts to dependents of people who died of AIDS-related illnesses.

    “Although HIV and Aids exclusion clauses for policies fell away at the beginning of 2005, the Aids Law Project has had thousands of complaints about policies taken out by HIV negative people prior to that date, who later contracted HIV. When they died, their dependents were denied a payout.”

Though this is undeniably an enormous triumph for those living with HIV and AIDS and their dependents, the Aids Law Project (ALP), which has fought on behalf of HIV-positive people against the Life Offices’ Association in this case, says there is still another battle to be faced: to get insurance companies to agree to cover HIV-positive applicants at affordable rates.

In a stunning turn of events, TAC leader Zackie Achmat told the Pretoria News that he will step down from his position as the organisation’s chairperson to concentrate on his doctorate (which he insists will have nothing to do with AIDS).

The TAC is expected to hold its congress in September or October, when a new leadership will be elected. After eight years at the TAC’s helm, Achmat is keen to hand over the reins to “new blood”, the Pretoria Times reported.

    “There are a number of good people who could become chairpersons of TAC. I would like to see a strong African woman who lives with HIV. That’s what I would like to see but of course it is up to the members of the TAC to decide,” he said.

Being its founder, Achmat has been at the helm of the TAC through some turbulent times. Some of the media highlights include the sensational call for Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to be charged with genocide after crediting her with the deaths of millions of South Africans. Last year he was also arrested for trespassing when TAC members occupied provincial government offices in Cape Town, during a protest demonstration.

Many will remember his tireless work against government for the betterment of the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS. The TAC has undoubtedly become one of the most powerful HIV-awareness non-governmental organisations in this country which now commands the respect of government in matters related to HIV and AIDS.

It is most interesting that he should choose the projected time of Tshabalala-Msimang’s return to her position to leave the TAC. While some AIDS groups have shown the ill minister some sympathy, it seems just the mere thought of her is a bitter moment for Achmat. When asked if he could ever be friends with the minister, the answer was unequivocally, “no”.

    “Almost a million people have died and for that I don’t think that I could ever establish a friendship with her … For my part, the best thing that could have happened for the epidemic was re-establishing government’s commitment in the way that the deputy president has and the deputy health minister has.”

Another interesting bit of news was Ngconde Balfour’s candid response to a written question from main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, providing hitherto not widely circulated statistics of HIV-positive prisoners and the number of those on antiretroviral treatment (ART).

The Pretoria News reported that Balfour said of the 13 700 prisoners that were HIV-positive (1 092 of which reportedly have full-blown AIDS), only 628 are currently receiving ART as well as counseling, with a further 1 600 on ART. Although this number may seem small, it must be taken into account that not all HIV-positive prisoners are necessarily in need of ART. Therefore, in respect of the Correctional Services’ former reluctance to give ART to prisoners, this is a marked improvement. However, it must be pointed out that at present there are only five correctional centres that have been credited as comprehensive treatment, care and support centres. While prisoners are now receiving treatment, a study conducted at the Durban Westville Prison showed a 30-percent infection rate among 300 inmates.

Although the media’s coverage of HIV-related stories is not steady or entirely satisfactory, it must be commended for the importance it has given to all these stories because they are stories that are pertinent to the fight against HIV and AIDS.