Battling HIV-Aids in South Africa

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A Dutch doctor battling HIV-Aids in a clinic he set up in South Africa in 1994 warns of media and donor fatigue. “Every week we bury two or three people. Hundreds of people across the country die of Aids every day.”

The benches in the open-air waiting room of the Ndlovu Medical Centre are packed. Some people have been there since 5am. As he walks through the corridors, Hugo Tempelman hugs and kisses staff left and right.

[media:image]40,000 bricks
Along with his wife Liesje, he arrived in South Africa in 1990, to work in a hospital run by the apartheid regime and offer care where it was most needed, in the countryside. Several friends turned their backs on them.

After the fall of apartheid, rather than trek from one poor country to another, they decided to stay and set up a practice that would last. “I knew the traditional leaders and asked for a piece of land. I got a second mortgage on the house and bought 40,000 bricks.”

The practice in Elandsdoorn, which is some three hours by car from Johannesburg, has since grown into a clinic, with a maternity ward, an HIV outpatient clinic, a lab, a radiology department, a nutrition centre with its own vegetable garden, a sports centre and a theatre. Every day doctors see around 250 patients, most of whom are HIV positive. Nearly 4,000 patients go there to get their Aids inhibitors.

“Our main task is to offer daily care for some 140,000 people in the area”, the 50-year-old Dutchman says. “Quality care”, he stresses. “If I didn’t want my child to come here for treatment, or my wife to give birth or my mom to get care, I’d be getting things wrong.”

[media:image2]Three Boeings
Tempelman is confronted with South Africa’s Aids explosion every day. “Often people wait too long, become too weak to make the trip, only to die after getting here.”

“It’s an uphill battle. Every day the country gets another 1,900 new HIV cases. Every day around 1,000 people die of related diseases.”

We can’t let attention slacken. “When a Boeing crashes in Europe, CNN, the BBC and Skynews are on top of it. Here, so to speak, three Boeings crash every day, and another six take off not knowing when they’ll crash.”

Money, too, is key. “If we waste no time in declaring war on Libya and find the resources to wage that war, why can’t we wage war against HIV-Aids? Even a fully fledged war doesn’t not claim a thousand victims a day. As long as the political will is not there, HIV-Aids won’t go away.”

Tempelman also talks witht South Africa’s health ministry. “I don’t want to work hard for the local community only. I also want to help shape policy.” While the previous government largely denied the HIV-Aids crisis, the currrent one is tackling the problem head-on.

Nowadays, he only sees patients during his holiday, at his house in Mozambique, together with his wife and three children. “When we arrive, they are already queuing”, he says laughing. “It’s wonderful.”

Though he misses Holland’s cosiness and cafes, he is not planning to return. “This is home. Holland is too busy, too organised. Here a handful of us have done a lot to improve healthcare. That is enormously satisfying. I’d never get that in Holland.”

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