By Russell Rensburg
As we move towards the release of South Africa’s latest National Strategic Plan for HIV/AIDS, TB and STI’s it is important to celebrate the successes achieved since the end of AIDS denialism and the introduction of a revitalised AIDS response in 2006. Getting there and sustaining the response has required significant political will and herculean effort to harness the combined energy of all sectors. The results are undeniable: we have seen over 3 million people initiated on treatment (something almost inconceivable at the start of the journey), the near elimination of mother to child transmission.
Successes aside, significant challenges remain: our performance on TB is less than spectacular and the rate of new infections among key populations—such as young woman, men who have sex with men and commercial sex workers—remains unacceptably high. We are almost there, but not quite.
The new NSP, which is deeply rooted in the global AIDS movement, heralds the end of AIDS by 2030. This belief is premised on the 90 90 90 strategy, which a lot like the offside rule in football, is deceptively simple but often difficult to explain. All things considered, the goal is to test 90 % of people, initiate 90% of those who test positive on treatment, and ensure that at least 90 % of those on treatment have suppressed viral loads, which will lower the risks of HIV transmission and prevent new infections. The idea is well articulated in the new NSP which proposes several innovative strategies to realise these goals. Some strategies target key populations, those directed at young women and girls, and strategies aimed at high transmission districts.
So, we have a good plan in hand? Not quite, we are afraid.
What makes a good plan is a plan that promotes equity and a plan that is informed by the people most affected. A good plan is a plan that we know will be implemented due to robust accountability mechanisms. These in our view are the Achilles’ heels of the new NSP.
There are complaints from different sectors as to the integrity of the consultation process. As with our own submission, there are allegations that the input of critical stakeholders, most especially community groups, have not been taken sufficiently into account. It would strengthen the plan’s standing if it could make fully transparent the consultation process and how key concerns have been addressed; or if not, why not.
Crumbling rural Building Blocks
Our second major concern regards the feasibility of the plan. Don’t get us wrong, we are not advocating for a less ambitious plan – but for a realistic, equitable plan. The World Health Organisation in their framework for strengthening health systems identifies six building blocks that are essential to a truly functional health system. These building blocks include leadership, human resources for health, service delivery platforms, sustainable financing, medical technologies and health information system. Looking at the plan through this lens, the feasibility of the new strategic plan is indeed exposed. To illustrate the challenge that lies ahead, it may be useful to reflect on a few of these concerning the goals presented in the NSP.
For instance, the NSP recommends a rapid expansion of the country’s treatment program by focusing on high-risk groups with the hope to more than double the number of people on treatment. Logically, it follows that the expansion in treatment will require concurrent investment in improving the functionality of the district health system. The reality, however, is that the NSP kicks off at a time when resources for health are diminishing, a weak currency is contributing to significant increases in drug prices, and there is a deepening crisis in human resources because resources are insufficient to meet basic HR needs. The system is close to collapse.
The picture is particularly bleak in rural areas where more than 40% of our population currently reside. Rural facilities, which have always struggled to attract health professionals, are further threatened by staffing moratoria. Infrastructure problems and neglect and the lack of investment in dignified and family-friendly accommodation for rural health care workers are other disenablers for the recruitment and retention of health care workers so critical to implementation of the NSP in the rural areas. Investment in HR is being channelled to larger urban centres, placing at risk millions of rural woman and girls who continued to be left behind.
The Role of SANAC
This brings us to the very critical role of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC). Against the above context, it is obvious that SANAC needs to ensure that the NSP speaks to these rural realities for if not, it is a plan doomed to fail on Government’s mandate to plan and deliver for all who live in South Africa. Secondly, SANAC ought to advocate robustly for these rural realities to be turned around: for strong, firm building blocks to be put in place and for these to be protected in rural South Africa. Beyond more nurses, doctors and pharmacists in rural areas, what we need are sufficient community health workers to reach the most impoverished communities at household level; and Clinical Associates to upscale the Medical Male Circumcision drive and to support the minimal numbers of doctors in many small rural hospitals at the brink of collapse.
While the NSP continues to advocate for a multi-sectoral response that includes all stakeholders, it provides little guidance on how the various sectors will interact nor does it provide an accountability framework against which the custodians of SANAC can be assessed. This is particularly important when you consider that beyond the development of the NSP, SANAC has little influence on how the strategy is implemented. What is required is a strong SANAC that has the support of all stakeholders. A strong SANAC that can lead, direct and accelerate the response. We fear SANAC in its current state does not meet this muster.
To ensure the success of this NSP urgent attention to the governance and accountability frameworks are needed. As a start, the current leadership vacuum has to be addressed. Secondly, there should be a robust review of existing governance structures at national provincial and district levels. Finally, it is time for fresh elections of all SANAC office bearers, ensuring that we have the right people in place with the courage and commitment to coordinate and oversee the implementation of an equitable NSP that brings quality HIV and TB services to all.
Russell Rensburg – RHAP Programme Manager: Health Systems and Policy