State of Denial: AIDS in South Africa and the Right to Health
by Andrea Holley, Manager of Outreach and Public Education, Human Rights Watch
State of Denial examines the issues of HIV/AIDS and access to treatment in South Africa. In many ways, South Africa typifies Africa's struggle with the epidemic. In other ways, it is unique. Filmmaker Elaine Epstein, a public health professional, looks at the multiple layers of the crisis through the prism of her own experience and the lives of those presented in the film.
International human rights law holds that human beings have the right to the highest attainable standard of health. These principles are found in the 1966 UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Denying people access to medical treatment is a violation of their right to health. In most cases, people are denied medical treatment because of an inability to pay. Most HIV/AIDS patients in South Africa cannot afford the high cost of the drugs that treat the syndrome. Consequently, they suffer from the opportunistic infections associated with it. However, South Africa has been able to overcome some of the financial and legal obstacles to providing treatment. Certain medical trials give otherwise neglected patients access to medication. Also, some drug companies have managed to produce generic forms of AIDS drugs and recently won the legal right to do so in South Africa.
Further confounding the crisis in South Africa is the social stigma associated with being HIV positive and the government's outright denial that HIV causes AIDS. Many HIV positive people hide their status for fear of being stigmatized and losing access to basic needs such as employment and housing. Activist networks and community groups focus as much on social support and counseling as they do on gaining access to treatment and forcing the government to acknowledge and confront the crisis.