When Dr Rose Mulumba first confronted the figures on her computer screen that showed her how much it would cost to treat South Africans requiring antiretrovirals she had to get up, clear my head and recalculate the numbers.
Speaking at a forum organised as part of the University of Cape Towns 175-year celebrations, Mulumba, who is head of the national health departments HIV/AIDS cluster, said that for a long time the cost of antiretrovirals was an inhibiting factor.
When you ask why we took long to introduce antiretrovirals you need to look at what the cost is of putting someone of lifelong treatment. The cost studies at the time showed that it would be astronomical. Remember that they are on these drugs for the rest of their life, said Mulumba.
She hastened to add that the health department now had a very clear target as to where we want to take the treatment programme as stated by President Thabo Mbeki in his State of the Nation address.
Mulumba, who jetted in from Johannesburg at the last minute after the scheduled speaker, health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was unable to leave a cabinet meeting, said that the health department was on track to meet its adjusted first year target of providing antiretroviral therapy to 53 000 people by March next year.
Initially the governments comprehensive treatment plan aimed to place 53 000 people on antiretroviral treatment by the end of March this year. However, Mbeki indicated earlier this year that the target date had been moved to March 2005.
One of several stumbling blocks delaying the provision of antiretroviral therapy in the public health sector has been the failure of the Department of Health to ensure a secure supply of drugs at the best available prices.
Tshabalala-Msimang has indicated that the tender process for the drugs will be completed by the end of the month. In the meantime provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape have taken interim steps to secure antiretroviral drugs while others such as Limpopo have done nothing and opted to leave it all to the national government.
Mulumba added that the massive prevention campaign launched by Government was having an impact with a stabilization in prevalence among those younger than 20 years.
But something happens after 20 as they leave home, start families and engage in relationships, said Mulumba.
Mulumba alluded to the task ahead as a huge one. It needs us united and not divided, it needs us participating and not competing, it needs us understanding and not confrontational.
She went on to invite the student group that included a large number of Treatment Action Campaign supporters to work with us learning from 10 years of democracy. Let us interact with maturity, tact and respect. Nobody has the monopoly of knowledge. We all have something to learn from the next person. (Source: Health-e, 10 August 2004)