Saving lives through Cheka Impilo and the PEPFAR Surge

This World AIDS Days we invite our partners in South Africa and beyond to stand with South Africa in promoting the Know your Status global campaign. Picture: Phando Jikelo/ANA

In between getting tested in Soweto at our national World AIDS Day commemoration and reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s legacy with the likes of Trevor Noah and Oprah Winfrey, we took time this weekend to recommit to the enduring partnership between the people of the United States and South Africa in the fight to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

We are eager to do our part.  On the Global Citizen stage, Ambassador Deborah Birx, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, announced an “HIV Treatment Surge” from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  PEPFAR will commit $1.2 billion (over 16 billion rand) over two years to support South Africa’s National Strategic Plan, particularly an acceleration of HIV testing and treatment.  This additional funding demonstrates the continuing commitment of Americans to assist South Africans to control the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

The HIV Treatment Surge plan was developed by Americans and South Africans working together.  It will directly support President Ramaphosa’s bold call in his State of the Nation address earlier this year to provide life-saving HIV treatment to two million more South Africans by December 2020.  For the first time in history, we now have the tools to control the HIV epidemic, even without yet having an HIV vaccine or cure.  South Africa has demonstrated the political will to prioritize HIV through its continuing investments and commitments. But to achieve our goal, South Africa must ramp up HIV testing, treatment, and retention in care. This is why the partnership between the American and South African people has never been more important.

With this newly announced HIV Treatment Surge, U.S. PEPFAR will support the  Department of Health to provide more direct services for HIV treatment; expand the health workforce, including supporting community health workers; and facilitate easier access to life-saving HIV medicines.  We also will work together to harness innovation and technology for greater impact and work with the private sector to apply new strategies for demand creation to reach additional populations.  Our goal is simple: make it easier for more people to start, and stay on, HIV treatment.  We will scale activities and methods that have been proven to work and support innovative new approaches to save more lives.  These HIV Treatment Surge strategies are fully aligned with the UNAIDS 90-90-90 goals, World Health Organisation guidelines, and global best practices, all of which have been adopted by South Africa.

Since U.S. PEPFAR launched in South Africa, life expectancy for South Africans living with HIV has increased by nine years.  In partnership with the South African government, U.S. PEPFAR has supported antiretroviral treatment to over 4.3 million South Africans and voluntary medical male circumcision to over 1.6 million men.  In 2018 alone, over 13 million South Africans received HIV testing services.  U.S. PEPFAR will proudly continue its support of more than 100 South African organizations, including private sector and community- and faith-based organizations.  These organizations are indispensable partners in reaching our shared goal of expanding life-saving treatment and preventing new infections.

The U.S. PEPFAR HIV Treatment Surge will support the Government of South Africa’s National Wellness Campaign, Cheka Impilo, which is a call to action to all South Africans to take responsibility for their health and wellness.  Living a smart and healthy life is not a once a year event—it is a constant, daily habit that we must practice.  This campaign will use the most effective and targeted HIV testing strategies to reach those less likely to use public health clinics, particularly men, adolescents, and young women.  Our mission is clear— immediately link everyone who is HIV positive to appropriate treatment and improve access to quality HIV and TB treatment through alternate dispensing plans, adherence clubs, support groups, and regular monitoring of viral load levels.  The HIV and TB epidemics in South Africa are inextricably linked, and South Africa is also firmly committed to reducing the burden of TB.

By expanding access to direct services for treatment, making medicine easier to access, and continuing our robust prevention efforts, together we can put all South Africans back in control of their own health and well-being. Despite our enormous progress over the years, we still have miles to go, and we need everyone’s help and commitment in our collective aim to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic.  Get tested and #KnowYourStatus. If you are HIV positive, start and stay on treatment.  If you are HIV negative, know the best options for prevention and use them.  Work against stigma and discrimination, which have no place in our society.  Stay engaged, make healthy choices, and lead by example.

President Ramaphosa has set ambitious goals for South Africa’s HIV and TB response, and we must seize the moment to push as strongly as we can—through business unusual—to control the twin HIV and TB epidemics.  This is a massive endeavor, but we are confident that together, we can create a safer, healthier, and brighter future for all our citizens.

Jessica Lappen is the Chargé d’Affaires at the United States Embassy in Pretoria. Dr. Pakishe Aaron Motsoaledi is the Minister of Health.