SGAC keynote address centers on South Africa and political activism to address epidemic

Last Saturday, as part of the Northeast Student Global AIDS Campaign Conference students of the College and other nearby colleges gathered to hear the keynote address by Nathan Geffen, National Coordinator and Thembeka Majali, Western Cape Coordinator of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) South Africa. Both addressed different aspects of the widespread existence of AIDS in South Africa.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was founded in 1998 and has been working ever since to improve the AIDS treatment availability in South Africa. The director of TAC, Zackie Achmat, was scheduled to be the speaker at this event, but due to illness, he was not present; he refuses to take medication that will improve his condition until the same treatment is equally distributed in South Africa.

Treatment for AIDS in South Africa is divided because of the extravagant pricing of pharmaceutical companies. The pervasive poverty amongst the ill does not allow them to buy the complicated AIDS treatment cocktail. Since the ill are not being treated and most importantly not educated about their disease, the propagation of AIDS goes on.

Majali highlighted the importance of education in her speech. She stated her view most clearly when she said, “Knowledge is power.”

Majali recognized the importance of knowledge when one of her relatives was infected with AIDS and died shortly thereafter because the value of treatment was not understood. Majali explained that knowledge is essential to TAC in the fight against the spread of AIDS. She explained that it is impossible for anti-retroviral AIDS drugs to work without education. The lack of understanding of the disease neutralizes any effort to stop the AIDS epidemic. In order to combat the AIDS epidemic effectively, measures such as an increase in volunteer counseling must occur.

Geffen pointed out the significant modification that volunteer counseling can have on HIV positive patients. He spoke of a study that showed that counseling modifies the sexual behavior of HIV-positive people, which decreases the incidence of new infections.

Geffen indicated other features of the fight against AIDS. He specifically highlighted the attitude of governments as an obstacle to the campaign. Geffen said that governments in many countries of Africa are not making any effort to confront the disease that is killing millions. He named Angola and Zimbabwe as examples of countries with failing government efforts in the struggle against AIDS.

Governments in Africa are not the only ones hindering TAC’s fight. The United States government is also contributing to the growing battle against AIDS preventative efforts. Geffen said that the Bush Administration is planning to limit the United States’ contribution to the global fund which helps fighting AIDS.

“It’ll be a step backwards” for the United States,” he said.

Later, when asked how students can help TAC Geffen referred back to this point and urged everyone to express their views on AIDS by writing to Congress and the president.

Political support will help the battle against AIDS and ensure that people are fairly treated. Geffen also referred back to the importance of education. Making others aware of the situation in South Africa is crucial because it may increase the number of people who support TAC and the fight against AIDS and more people will make their views known to officials.

According to Geffen, TAC has had many successes. He told the audience the controversial lawsuit that took place last year against several multi-national pharmaceutical companies.

Since that lawsuit, which TAC helped to win, the price of anti-retroviral drugs has decreased from $300 to $100. Improved treatment of the ill has also increased the living age to 40, which remains short of the life expectancy in other countries, but is an improvement nonetheless.

Geffen said that the progress created by any action is “much better than doing nothing.”

Geffen also described as a benefit the good relationship TAC has established with the Catholic Church.

At the end of his presentation, Geffen clearly stated why he believes AIDS should not be a part of Africa to the extent that it presently is.

He compared the spread of AIDS to that of the Black Plague in medieval Europe. He said that the difference between the two is that we now have the resources, but we are not using them appropriately.

Majali concluded his speech by stating the steps that are being taken to educate the people about AIDS.

She said that programs for condom distribution in high schools have already begun and that more students are being taught about AIDS in schools.