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Hiv/Aids (South Africa)

Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 11 June 2003

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What discussions the Department has had with representatives of the South African Government about tackling HIV/AIDS in South Africa. [118377]

Officials from the Department's Pretoria office hold regular discussions with their South African counterparts about the problems of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Helping to tackle HIV/AIDS is one of our main priorities in the country, and we have recently approved a new £30 million programme.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position. As I am sure he knows, many people in South Africa believe that the true number of people with HIV/AIDS is well above the known, published figure, which is itself high. Many in the country also believe that the link between HIV and AIDS is not yet fully established, which makes our task of trying to help and to tackle this appalling problem even more difficult. What can we do to make such people face up to the issue and tackle it head on?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. Let me also take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) for the integrity, commitment and passion with which she led the Department for six years. The esteem in which the Department is held in the House and across the globe owes a great deal to her achievements, and we are very grateful to her for all that she has done.

My hon. Friend is right to mention the difficulties created by attitudes to HIV/AIDS in some quarters in South Africa, which are preventing an effective response to the problem. According to our best estimate, about 5 million people in South Africa are currently infected with HIV—one person in nine—although there have been changes in recent months, not least following last year's court ruling that pregnant women should have access to neverapine. That has now been implemented.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must work continuously with the South African Government in responding to the challenge, and that is what we are seeking to do. There is a good plan on paper, and we must provide support, along with other donors, so that it can be delivered in reality.

Let me also welcome the Minister to his post, and wish him well.

I was in South Africa with the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) in South Africa very recently. We visited Khayelitsha in Cape Town, which has grown from nothing to an area with a population of 1.2 million since 1985. We heard about the work of a woman dealing with child abuse—and its obvious consequences, including sexually transmitted diseases—in a desperately overworked clinic. Will the Minister ensure that the Department's money is spent on supporting such clinics at the grass roots, so that the message about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases reaches those in the greatest need in South Africa? Sometimes those people are away from the public eye and away from the established clinics. Work needs to be done to help those who are moving into shanty towns: that is where the need may be greatest.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of ensuring that the message reaches all levels of society, especially those that are the hardest to reach. We are working on a national and provincial programme, in partnership with the South African Government and other organisations. Evidence elsewhere in Africa—Uganda being the best-known example—shows what can be done through a concerted effort by the Government and all parts of society to convey the message about the steps people can take to protect themselves, which in the long run is the most effective thing we can do to reduce this terrible scourge in South Africa, and indeed throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. Does he agree that women play a key role when it comes to dealing with HIV/AIDS in South Africa and other countries? They can convey their knowledge of the illness to children, in the family and in schools. Can the Department take that into account, through its relationship with the Government and at other levels?

As my hon. Friend says, it is important to work with all parts of society but particularly with women, given their important role in the family. The court judgment that I mentioned, allowing access to antiretrovirals for pregnant women, will be widely welcomed.

As my hon. Friend knows, an important part of the Department's work wherever we are to be found in the world involves working with women and giving them more opportunities to take control of their lives. Their contribution will also be important to the tackling of HIV/AIDS in South Africa and elsewhere.