CAPETOWN, South Africa - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has wrapped up her 11-day, 9-country tour of Africa, much of which was spent highlight efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Clinton called on countries to not forget prevention programs even as they make strides in treatment and lowering infection rates.
She visited a testing center in Malawi, a pharmacy distributing anti-retroviral treatment in South Africa, and a health clinic in Uganda. All three are initiatives supported by the United States.
Africa -- in particular eastern and southern Africa -- remains disproportionately infected by HIV/AIDS despite increased access to treatment and and an overall decline in new infections. Clinton praised recent strides made in South Africa, where Washington has invested $3.2 billion since 2004.
Thanks to the joint effort, Clinton said millions have received treatment and testing and the rate of mother-to-child transmission has dropped dramatically.
"Now, when we look back at where South Africa was a decade ago, these numbers represent remarkable progress," she said. "AIDS did represent an unprecedented national emergency, and we needed to scale up treatment and care to millions of people as fast as we could. That’s what we’ve done together. But let’s be honest here, this disease is still very dangerous. It still demands our close attention," Clinton said.
Though the country has made advances in slowing the infection rate, 17.8 percent of South Africans have tested positive for the virus. It is home to what the United Nations says is the world's largest HIV epidemic with 5.6 million people infected.
America limited access to HIV/AIDS funding to the government of South Africa during the administration of former President Thabo Mbeki, who denied there was a link between HIV and AIDS and rejected internationally recognized treatments for the disease.
Access to treatment has been a cornerstone of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, known as PEPFAR, and other global initiatives. The U.N. says nearly 40 percent of HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa now have access to anti-retroviral treatment, up from 2 percent in 2002.
However, Clinton said that success should not impart a false sense of security. She spoke in South Africa just days after a visit to Uganda where the HIV-infection rate has climbed from 6.4 percent in 2005 to 7.3 percent in 2011. That is a disappointing statistic, she said, for the country that was once considered a global leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
"I am here because I am worried," said Clinton. " In recent years, the focus on prevention has faded and new infections are on the rise again. Uganda is now the only country in sub-Saharan Africa where the rate of HIV is going up instead of going down."
Some experts have blamed an abstinence-based approach to prevention for the backslide in Uganda.
Clinton pledged an additional $25 million in funding for HIV/AIDS work there, for programs to wipe out mother-to-child transmission of the disease.
In South Africa, Clinton announced the beginning of a transition period, during which South Africa will assume greater financial burden and management of its PEPFAR-sponsored HIV/AIDS program. It's a global first for the PEPFAR program, she said, and a testament to the country's progress.
"Nonetheless, some people may hear South Africa is in the lead and think that means that the United States is bowing out. So let me say this clearly: The United States is not going anywhere. We will continue to be your close partners through PEPFAR … We are in this for the long haul," she said. "This disease is no respecter of boundaries, no respecter of any kind of attribute. It does not respect race or religion, ethnicity, gender. It is an equal opportunity infection and can be an equal opportunity killer."
This work, and this partnership, will not be done, Clinton said, until the world achieves an "AIDS-free generation."