Access to health care on farms reduces HIV infection

South Africa’s agriculture sector has reason to celebrate World Aids Day today, rather than just commemorate it. HIV-positive cases have declined over the last few years as a result of awareness campaigns and access to treatment on farms.

Access to health care on farms reduces HIV infection
Deaths as a result of Aids have been reduced as myths surrounding taking antiretrovirals have been dispelled.
Photo: Flickr
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According to the Department of Health, South Africa accounts for 20% of new HIV infections globally. Approximately eight million people live with HIV in the country, yet only six million are on treatment.

This year’s theme for World Aids Day in South Africa is ‘Let communities lead’. This is where farmers have made a notable impact in increasing access to treatment for farmworkers and driving education campaigns to dispel myths and stigmas around Aids.

Kallie Schoeman, CEO of the Schoeman Group in Groblersdal, Limpopo, who funds a private clinic on his farm where 800 farm labourers get treated every month, says that HIV-positive cases have become rare. “Infection rates seemed to have peaked around 10 years ago and have declined significantly.”

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Billboards around Schoeman’s farm serve to raise awareness about HIV and how infection can be prevented. Schoeman believes that this has had an impact on the morality of society, as there is a better understanding of the implications of unsafe sex and having multiple partners.

Nikki Stuart-Thompson, director of the Choice Trust foundation in Tzaneen, Limpopo, told Farmer’s Weekly that gender dynamics on farms made this segment of the population especially vulnerable to HIV infection, but that education campaigns have quelled infection rates.

“Farms often have more men in senior positions, with women in lower positions with little power to refuse sexual advances or favours. The fact that many farmworkers are migrants, and often have families at home while they live on farms themselves, means that extra-marital sex is common, increasing the rate of infection.

“But we have seen a massive shift from 20 years ago where farmworkers had to take responsibility for their own health, to where the farmers now actively seek health care for their workers. Farmers want their workers to be healthy and are proactive in providing condoms, information pamphlets and days where testing can take place and medicine provided on farm.”

Schoeman noted that the continued health care provided by the on-farm clinic has reduced absenteeism from work by 52%. Deaths as a result of Aids have also reduced as myths surrounding taking antiretrovirals have been dispelled.

“There was previously a tendency to trust traditional medicine over western medicine, which meant HIV was going untreated. But now people have no qualms about taking antiretrovirals.”

Stuart-Thompson however cautioned that the current success should not lead to complacency.

“We need to keep the momentum going. There are still too many infection rates among young girls and without continued focus on education and access to health care, we will not reach our goal of eliminating HIV.”