Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor has stressed the need for continued research in South Africa to help the efforts to find a highly effective and accessible preventive HIV vaccine.
Minister Pandor, who was speaking on the side-lines of the International AIDS Conference taking place at Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre, is not the first high profile person to stress the need for extensive discussion at the conference to finance research that could lead to the discovery of the preventative vaccine.
The United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon made a similar call on Monday.
The World Health Organisation has said the availability of a safe, highly effective and accessible preventive HIV vaccine would be a valuable complement to other preventive interventions.
This as hundreds of delegates are gathering in Durban in a bid to find new ways of responding to the AIDS epidemic. The last time the conference was held in South Africa 16 years ago, its deliberations were almost shadowed by the clash between science and politics and at the time activists took government to court over the provision of treatment.
Speaking to SAnews, Minister Pandor said although the politics was still part of the debate on HIV, the policy of the South African government was clear in that and research and science are important in the fight against the virus.
“The political issues are still there but action by the South African government has been very robust in responding to the pandemic. The levels and the number of people receiving treatment speaks for itself. We are supporting the intention of government to expand what we are currently doing and it shows that we are acting as all governments should,” Minister Pandor said.
Over three million of the six million estimated people who are living with HIV is South Africa are receiving treatment. The country has also seen a drastic drop in AIDS related deaths as well as the 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 decrease significantly from 8% in 2008 to 2.6% in 2013.
“We have made great strides in research and improving treatment. You know now you only have to take one pill instead of a few pills as it was required in the past. Where we still have challenges is the issue of access particularly for the marginalised and often African women in rural areas,” said Minister Pandor.
She said government still needed to tackle the issue of access to treatment for vulnerable groups as well as people who could still be discriminated based on their sexual orientation.
“Those who live in urban areas still enjoy access than others. On the basis of your sexual orientation you are treated as if you are a criminal. We don’t have that in South Africa but it certainly exists in other countries,” she said.
Minister Pandor’s department is leading several research projects not only on HIV but on TB and malaria. She said she would use the AIDS conference in Durban to benchmark South Africa’s research to that of other countries represented at the gathering.
“This conference is emphasising that none of us must rest on our laurels. This is a big challenge for society and we want to make the sort of impact that we are talking about in terms of 2030 we really going to have to work much harder.”
She said South Africa was making a breakthrough on Malaria research and that even with HIV the country’s research was promising.
“We are looking at several HIV research projects and new treatments and see how these can support women. We tried with the microbicide gel and they said it didn’t have a protective impact but the challenge we had is that the women who were used for the trial didn’t use the gel consistently.
“Our scientists have gone back to look at how we remedy the problem of use by women. We are continuing to search for a vaccine because that would be our first prize.”