JOHANNESBURG – Thousands of health workers will help hand out 2.5 billion condoms and test 15 million people for HIV as part of the world's largest campaign in the country hardest hit by the virus, the health minister said Thursday.
After years of official denial and delay, South Africa's government last year embarked on an anti-AIDS drive, vowing to halve new infections and ensure that 80 percent of those who need them have access to AIDS drugs by 2011.
Health Minister Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi has asked 9,000 retired South African doctors and health workers to help with testing and counseling during the $190 million campaign. He also has asked universities to lend their final-year medical students during the campaign's first week.
Every person receiving HIV counseling and testing will receive 100 male condoms each, and 1 billion others will be distributed to public facilities, including FIFA-accredited hotels for football fans during the upcoming World Cup tournament, Motsoaledi said.
The campaign being launched April 15 also will treat rape victims and encourage male circumcision as a measure to prevent the virus that causes AIDS.
The testing campaign hopes to "bring HIV out of the shadows and into the mainstream, helping to erode some of the stigma around the disease", said Mark Heywood of the South African National AIDS Council, the government-supported coalition behind the campaign.
Some 500 general practitioners already have pledged to provide free testing at their practices. Testing will take place at all government hospitals, clinics, some universities and pharmacies, as well as in mobile units sent to remote rural areas.
South Africa, a nation of about 50 million, has an estimated 5.7 million people infected with HIV, more than any other country.
President Jacob Zuma has been applauded for turning around AIDS policies after President Thabo Mbeki's stance was blamed for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths. Mbeki questioned whether HIV caused AIDS and his health minister distrusted drugs developed to keep patients alive, instead promoting garlic and beet treatments.
In contrast, Zuma has called for earlier and expanded treatment for HIV-positive South Africans, and has urged people to get tested for HIV.
Zuma's turnaround is all the more remarkable because of his personal history. In 2006, Zuma was ridiculed after he testified while being tried on charges of raping an HIV-positive woman that he took a shower to lower the risk of AIDS. He was acquitted of rape.