JOHANNESBURG — In the early '90s when South Africa's Themba Lethu clinic could only treat HIV/AIDS patients for opportunistic diseases, many would come in on wheelchairs and keep coming to the health center until they died.
Two decades later the clinic is the biggest antiretroviral, or ARV, treatment center in the country and sees between 600 to 800 patients a day from all over southern Africa. Those who are brought in on wheelchairs, sometimes on the brink of death, get crucial drugs and often become healthy and are walking within weeks.
"The ARVs are called the 'Lazarus drug' because people rise up and walk," said Sue Roberts, who has been a nurse at the clinic, run by Right to Care in Johannesburg's Helen Joseph Hospital, since it opened its doors in 1992.
She said they recently treated a woman who was pushed in a wheelchair for 1.8 miles to avoid a taxi fare and who was so sick it was touch and go. Two weeks later, the woman walked to the clinic, Roberts said.
Such stories of hope and progress were readily available on World AIDS Day 2012 on Saturday in sub-Saharan Africa where deaths from AIDS-related causes have declined by 32 percent from 1.8 million in 2005 to 1.2 million in 2011, according to the latest UNAIDS report.
As people around the world celebrated a reduction in the rate of HIV infections, the growth of the clinic, which was one of only a few to open its doors 20 years ago, reflects how changes in treatment and attitude toward HIV and AIDS have moved South Africa forward. The nation, which has the most people living with HIV in the world at 5.6 million, still faces stigma and high rates of infection.
"You have no idea what a beautiful time we're living in right now," said one of the doctors at the clinic, Dr. Kay Mahomed, over the chatter of a crowd of patients outside her door.
South Africa has increased the numbers treated for HIV by 75 percent in the past two years, UNAIDS said, and new HIV infections have fallen by more than 50,000 in those two years. South Africa has also increased its domestic expenditure on AIDS to $1.6 billion, the highest by any low-and middle-income country, the group said.