Former Heads of State on the fight against the spread of HIV in the Sub-Saharan African Region: briefing

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03 March 2010
Chairperson: Mr M Goqwana (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Champion of a Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) free generation (hereinafter referred to as “Champions”) met briefly with the Health Portfolio Committee for an information sharing session on the work they were doing in raising awareness about preventing the spread of HIV. Their message was primarily about encouraging people to take measures for preventing the transmission of the disease. In order to achieve that objective, changing attitudes would be the key and leaders in particular were urged to play a leading role in ensuring that the message spread throughout. They praised the South African government for its bold efforts in tackling the pandemic. Male circumcision was identified as one of the many measures that were being promoted, as there was medical evidence to prove that it significantly reduced chances of infection. The Committee asked questions on whether there was a danger of young people thinking that circumcision was a cure for HIV, whether there was a need for making HIV one of the foremost diseases and whether or not the actions of politicians which were contrary to what they said undermined the fight against the disease. Owing to the limited time that was available, the meeting was kept brief but the Committee asked the Champions to visit again for further engagements.  

Meeting report

The chairperson welcomed his excellences; the former Presidents Mr Festus Mogae (of Botswana) and Mr Joaquim Chissano (of Mozambique) and their delegation. South Africa and the Committee in particular were extremely privileged to have the delegation in their midst. The presence of the two gentlemen, together with the message they carried would go a long way in rejuvenating and revitalising the efforts of creating an HIV free generation. Gratitude should be extended to the former presidents for their selfless efforts in choosing not to enjoy their deserved retirement and opting to take forward the campaign of preventing the spread of HIV and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Mr Mogae’s Presentation

The former president of Botswana Mr Mogae introduced his delegation as well as the Champions of a HIV free generation. They were a group of ten influential individuals composed of former heads of state, religious leaders, models and judges, who were preoccupied with preventing the spread of HIV particularly in the sub-Saharan African region. Their message was aimed at mobilising, encouraging and raising awareness on preventing the spread of HIV through changing attitudes and beliefs about the disease.  Leaders were edged to join the cause since they commanded a huge following in communities and if they spoke the right message, which was likely to be heeded. Leaders were being urged to be bold and to speak with one voice on issues concerning HIV. The efforts by the present South African government were commendable and sent the right message. The Champions were presently obsessed with raising awareness for the need of male circumcision to be one of the many ways of reducing the chances of HIV contraction. There was medical evidence to prove that circumcision reduced the chances of HIV contraction by up to 60%.
The Chairperson opened the meeting for discussion and said that the message was loud and clear; the key to fighting the disease was through changing the attitudes and to some extent changing certain beliefs and values that had only served to promote the spread of HIV. It was clear that the responsibility to make a contribution towards changing current attitudes was a task, which extended beyond the medical profession.

Dr A Luthuli (ANC) said she was aware of the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) research and findings. One of the findings was that male circumcision reduced the chances of HIV contraction significantly. Many tended to promote this aspect to the extent that it now looked as if once a person was circumcised, they may forget to continue using protection. This was dangerous, as circumcision did not prevent contraction of the virus at all. Circumcision simply reduced the chances of contraction and it was important that while the message of circumcision was being spread to the people, it was also critical to make it plain that people should continue to use protection.

Mr Chissano said it was true that there could be a danger if people were not adequately informed, they could start to think that circumcision solved the spread of HIV. It was therefore important to whoever was delivering the message about the benefits of circumcision not to forget to emphasise that safer methods of engaging in sexual activities were still vital and should never be abandoned once an individual was circumcised. Having he himself been brought up through Christian values, circumcision was like baptism. Baptism alone was not enough to take one to heaven and the same argument extended to circumcision.

Ms T Kenye (ANC) said she was glad that the debate around the need to circumcise had finally gathered momentum. There was a need to intensify the debate in order to ensure that the message permeated to all across the sub-Saharan region and also to put more effort in de-stigmatising the disease through intensive educational campaigns.

Mr Chissano said it was encouraging to hear South Africa was already on the highway to taking positive initiatives in the fight against HIV. Political leadership, particularly President Zuma’s speech on World Aids Day and during his state of the nation address was testimony to the fact that indeed the South African government was serious about intensifying the fight against the spread of the disease.

Ms M Segale-Diswai (ANC) asked which form of circumcision did the Champions prefer? In South Africa, certain ethnic groups circumcised as part of their culture but at times that form of circumcision was denounced by certain sectors as primitive or uncivilised. Was there a way of harmonising the traditional method of circumcision with the western one?

Mr Mogae said that there was definitely a need to harmonise the two forms of circumcision because if both were properly done, they achieved the same purpose as far as reducing the chances of infection was concerned. In Botswana, the government devised a strategy of harmonising the two forms for example medical practitioners carried-out the testing procedure and monitored the healing process for a few days before cultural practices were allowed to continue. This ensured a safe circumcision, which was still in line with cultural practices.

Mr M Walters (DA) said it was a fantastic initiative to have leaders involved in sending the message for an HIV free generation. The big challenge in South Africa was that leaders should not only send the right message but also walk the talk and lead by example. A situation existed particularly where leaders would say all the right things but act in the direct opposite manner to what they had said.

Mr Chissano remarked that people should not despair even when they were let down by the leadership. While it was true that leaders should lead by example, often times human beings fell and were found wanting. However that should not taint the message, which they were delivering and people should not be obsessed with scrutinising the individuals but rather it should be the message that was far more important. An example of this was that he did not leave his Catholic congregation after there were scandals of immoral practices by some who occupied high office in the church. 

Ms E More (ANC) said it was also important to have a sustainable financial structure for funding HIV prevention initiatives in order to ensure that the message spread even faster than the disease. In addition, it was also important not to focus all the resources on prevention because a significant number of the sub-Saharan population was already infected and therefore it was important to promote prevention side-by-side with treatment and support for those already infected.

Ms C Dudley (ACDP) asked whether it was not time to start debating whether to classify HIV as a notifiable disease in South Africa?

Mr Mogae said that shifting the debate in that direction needed to be done with absolute care as it had the effect of intensifying the stigma. In Botswana, the country was careful to only classify as notifiable only the curable diseases and that was the reason HIV had not yet been put in that category.

The Chairperson said he was aware that the former presidents had a busy schedule and in the interest of time, needed to be released. The meeting, although brief, was very fruitful and one would hope it was not the first and last time the delegation met with the Committee. Mr Waters should give a vote of thanks to the former presidents and their delegation.

Mr Waters (DA) said the Committee appreciated the efforts of the Champions for a HIV free generation. As the Committee, the doors were always open for engagement on any matter. As the Chairperson had said, one could only hope for many more interactions to come as it was an open secret that the sub-Saharan region was the hardest hit by the scourge of HIV and therefore any efforts of raising awareness through campaigns such as those initiated by the Champions would always be supported and encouraged.

The meeting was adjourned.  


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