11 April, 2010

Three Letter Plague

Three Letter Plague by Jonny Steinberg

When I picked this up at the library, I thought it was about Jonny Steinberg's struggle with HIV. As I started to read it though, I realised it was research he had done into HIV in South African villages.

 In 2008, 5.5 million (about 18.8%) of adult South Africans were HIV positive. This is partly due to the Mbeki government denial that HIV could be fought using antiretroviral drugs (ARV). Mbeki claimed that AIDS was a collapse of the immune system, but that it wasn't caused by a virus. Instead, he said it was caused poverty, poor nutrition and ill health that caused the disease and the answer laid in alleviating that poverty, not in drugs.
(Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/26/aids-south-africa)

Medecins Sans Frontires (MSF) started a treatment program using ARVs despite the government policy. It set out to show you could effectively treat HIV positive people in the villages, but they had to be able to access the drugs via clinics that were within walking distance, not through hospitals which were harder to get to.

Steinberg went to one of these villages and ended up following one young man, gauging his reaction to AIDS, treatment and using him as an interpreter to talk to others. Sizwe is afraid to get tested. He is afraid of the stigma that could be attached to him if he is positive. He is afraid of the impact in will have on his chances of marrying and really, he's not so sure these white westerners are not just trying to poison him, that maybe Mbeki is right.

Sizwe describes a testing day when MSF came to his village to administer HIV tests. He says everyone knew who was positive and who wasn't, because those who weren't were kept longer for counselling. Those who were negative left straight away. However, as he followed Steinberg around, spoke to those who were infected, went to clinics, he had to admit, the ARV's helped.

This book made me think. Things that are so obvious to our media saturated, scientific focussed world just don't cut it in South Africa. The people aren't stupid. They have their own belief systems, and quite understandably, they have problems trusting white medicine. Mbeki's resistance to ARV's have affected SA in so many ways - not just in the number of deaths that could have been prevented, but ongoing issues with fighting for acceptance.