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AIDS activists take funding fight to the pitch

Janet “China” Mpalume leads the ARV swallows, an all-women, HIV-positive soccer team, to victory at the Halftime Tournament in Johannesburg Laura Lopez Gonzalez/PlusNews
Janet “China” Mpalume leads the ARV swallows, an all-women, HIV-positive soccer team, to victory at the Halftime Tournament in Johannesburg
Janet "China" Mpalume led Zimbabwe's ARV Swallows to a decisive victory in the Halftime Football Tournament in Johannesburg on 2 July 2010. She wasn't playing for the FIFA World Cup, but for something potentially far more important.

As the battle for the World Cup heats up, HIV-positive soccer players were waging their own fight for AIDS funding. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the global medical charity, brought together six teams of HIV-positive footballers from Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe as part of a drive to draw attention to falling international HIV/AIDS funding.

"Can you imagine the massive outcry if someone stopped the World Cup after the semi-finals? Or if the referee just allowed the final match to be played until halftime?" asked Dr Giles van Cutsem, coordinator of MSF projects in Khayelitsha, one of Cape Town's largest townships.

MSF's recent "No Time to Quit" report tracked the effects of funding downturns, including growing shortages of drugs to treat HIV/AIDS in countries like Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "The HIV/AIDS emergency is not over. [Donors] cannot go back on promises ... like, 'We will give you life, we will give you treatment'," van Cutsem said.

In the past decade, about four million HIV-positive people have started antiretroviral (ARV) treatment globally, but an estimated nine million people are still in need of the life-prolonging drugs.

Rian van de Braak, MSF Head of Mission in Zimbabwe, said health systems there were already struggling to cope with the fallout from an HIV/AIDS epidemic that claimed an estimated 1,000 lives every week. "We need donors to come to Zimbabwe, not leave Zimbabwe," he said.

Halftime a dangerous time to quit

The all-women ARV Swallows, formed in 2008, credit the medication for giving them the strength to train three times a week. Access to ARV drugs has also made it easier for them to disclose their HIV-positive status to their communities, and challenge stereotypes and stigma, said Mpalume, who tested positive in 2007.

"When we started taking ARVs, we were getting fit and healthy – people [in our community] started to realise we were just the same as other people," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "Now, because people see us playing soccer, it has allowed other people in our community to come out about their [HIV] status."

Read more
 Positive women's football beats stigma
 Lost funding means lost lives
 Footballers join AIDS fight
 Straight Talk with FIFA's Social Responsibility Head
Mpalume said the funding cuts made her worry about whether the people she had encouraged to be tested and seek treatment would get the help they needed.

Nokhwezi Hoboyi, a district coordinator at the Treatment Action Campaign, a South African AIDS lobby group, urged South Africa's President Jacob Zuma to lobby the international community to honour its HIV/AIDS funding commitments when he attends the G20 meeting in November. "I'm alive today and I'm a mother because of ARVs," she said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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