HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament

Johannesburg – Today, as the first World Cup ever hosted in Africa gathers pace, an alternative international football tournament will highlight the disastrous reversal in the fight against HIV/AIDS that risks the unnecessary deaths of millions.

Protesting against international donors backtracking in the fight against HIV/AIDS, a unique HALFTIME! tournament, organised by medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), brings teams of people living with HIV from across Southern Africa to compete in Johannesburg, while similar football matches will take place simultaneously across the world.

“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 only? Yet right now the battle against the HIV/AIDS emergency is being stalled before half-time, risking the lives of 9 million people in need of treatment,” says Dr Gilles van Cutsem, MSF project coordinator in Khayelitsha, South Africa.

Today four million people worldwide are alive and on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment largely thanks to the political will and financial support of international donors. However, over the last 18 months MSF has witnessed a disturbing shift in HIV/AIDS treatment funding.

MSF’s recently released report entitled “No time to quit: HIV/AIDS treatment gap widening in Africa” reveals, through analysis of eight sub-Saharan countries, how major international funding institutions such as PEPFAR, the World Bank, UNITAID, and donors to the Global Fund have decided to cap, reduce or withdraw their spending on HIV treatment and life-saving ARV drugs over the past year and a half.

“Only one in three people living with HIV in urgent need of ARVs have access to it –so we are not halfway there yet in treating everyone. The HIV/AIDS emergency is not over and halftime is no time to quit! Millions of people are at risk dying within the next few years if we don’t do more now to keep donors to their promises. They committed to it, publicly and they knew the treatment is life long,” says Dr. Van Cutsem.

HALFTIME! in Johannesburg brings together people living with HIV, members of the Treatment Action Campaign health activist group, and MSF staff from HIV treatment projects in the Southern African region for a 5-a-side football tournament. The players in the six teams from South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe are all alive today because of the availability of ARVs They are calling on donors to stay in the life-or-death HIV/AIDS match.

“Playing soccer makes me feel like I am alive. Before going on treatment people were actually counting down the days until my death. Now, with treatment, people see me as a person, and not as a corpse,” says Janet Mpalume, a Zimbabwean MSF patient playing in the HALFTIME! tournament. “However, many other people in need of treatment are dying out there now. The promises to them must be kept.”

The six teams in the HALFTIME! tournament in Johannesburg may be competitors on the field but they are all united behind a common goal in their quest to remind the world the HIV crisis is not over.

Cutbacks from international donors come amid a backdrop of insufficient domestic contributions to health when more than half of African countries underspend on health care. MSF calls on international donors to recommit to their pledges to keep on funding life-saving ARV drugs and treatment programmes in the deciding match against HIV/AIDS.