An Aids-free generation

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A team of 30, driven by the passion to save lives, runs the Ulysses Gogi Modise Wellness Clinic in remote Kathu in the Northern Cape. Zinhle Mapumulo visited to see how this beacon of hope is defeating HIV and Aids

SINCE START-UP Alta Buys has been delivering hope and ARVs to the community since 2007, when the clinic opened. Picture: Leon Sadiki
SINCE START-UP Alta Buys has been delivering hope and ARVs to the community since 2007, when the clinic opened. Picture: Leon Sadiki

It began nine years ago with the desire to save lives and preserve the mining workforce, which was under threat.

Aids was sweeping into every ­corner of South African society, killing young and old alike, and ­leaving thousands of ­children ­orphaned.

In the mining industry, HIV prevalence was increasing at an alarming rate and epidemiologists were predicting that the consequences would be severe in the mining communities as a result of the risk behaviours associated with ­migratory work patterns.

Realising the potential catastrophe facing its workforce, Anglo American’s Kumba Iron Ore responded by building an HIV treatment clinic in Kathu in 2007.

The aim of the Ulysses Gogi Modise Wellness Clinic was to provide free and voluntary HIV testing, counselling and treatment to its employees, their dependants, contractors and the communities of the Gamagara Local Municipality.

Nine years later, the clinic is not just a place to get ­antiretrovirals (ARVs), but is a beacon of hope for the Kathu community.

This is where people arrive broken and defeated, and are nursed back to life and leave the facility physically and mentally strong.

Alta Buys, along with her 30-member team, runs this facility.

She told City Press that it was the satisfaction of knowing you had saved a life that made their jobs worthwhile.

“Our job is not easy, but what keeps us ­going is knowing that we have saved a life and made a positive change in our community,” Buys said:

“Sometimes patients are brought to us very sick and families have lost hope, but we treat them and counsel them with their families. When the patient recovers and you see a positive change in their life, we know we have done well.”

Buys, the clinic’s general manager, has been there from day one. She has seen the clinic reach one milestone after another.

When the clinic opened in June 2008, it had 15 ­patients.

Today, it provides ARV treatment to 1 416 ­people, and that number is growing. It now also offers screening for lifestyle diseases, and assists with the emergency deliveries of babies and ­patient resuscitations.

The R17.2 million clinic, which is part of a public­-private partnership between Anglo American’s Sishen mine and the department of health, is across the road from the government clinic.

Whenever the government clinic needs extra hands, staff cross the road to assist. Also, when the wellness clinic’s patients need specific care, they are referred to the state clinic.

“We are not competing with them, but complementing what they are doing in the community of Kathu. ­Together, we are driving the clinic, because this is really a community inheritance,” said Buys.

Kathu is a small town in the John Taolo Gaetsewe ­District Municipality in the Northern Cape.

Aids has been the leading cause of death in the municipality for years.

Four in 10 men between the ages of 25 and 65 who died between 2008 and 2013 died of Aids-related illnesses. About 28% of deaths in women in the same age range were also caused by Aids.

These statistics, taken from the latest District Health Barometer, indicate the desperate need for such a clinic in this part of South Africa.

Stefan van der Borght, Anglo American’s group head of health, said:

“The Northern Cape is one of the provinces where HIV and Aids is the leading cause of death. As a global mining business that has played a leading role in the prevention, treatment and care of HIV and Aids ­patients, we recognised the need to respond proactively by launching the clinic in 2007.”

Anglo has long been actively involved in finding solutions to the HIV epidemic in South Africa. Its efforts date back 30 years, when Professor Reuben Sher and Dr Brian Brink, Anglo American’s former chief medical ­officer, conducted an HIV-prevalence survey in the South African mining industry workforce.

Thousands of mine workers participated. Of the 18 450 South African mine workers tested for HIV, only four, accounting for 0.02%, were HIV-positive.

By the early 1990s, the HIV incidence in the mining ­industry in South Africa had increased to 1%, and grew to 25% by 2000.

At this time, only a few privileged ­people could afford ARVs, which meant HIV-positive mine workers faced a death sentence.

Fortunately, that era has passed. These days, every person diagnosed with HIV in South Africa is entitled to receive the life-changing drugs.

“Not a single patient has returned home without ­getting their treatment from our clinic. We take HIV treatment very seriously, and we always ensure we have enough stock for our patients,” Buys said.

“Our pharmacist does a sterling job, to such an extent that we sometimes share our stock with the local clinic when its stock is depleted. After all, we are all supplied by the department of health.”

Buys also speaks highly of the clinic’s programme to prevent mother-to-child transmission. Since the clinic opened, 124 pregnant women have been successfully treated.

“None of the babies born from our HIV-positive mothers has seroconverted [where HIV antibodies develop and become detectable in a person]. This is a great achievement for us, because children are the future. If we are to end HIV, we need to make sure this generation remains Aids free,” Buys said.

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