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Swiss nurse saves lives in South Africa

Sylvia Hamilton-Schweizer (third from left) with carers in South Africa (aidshilfe-bern.ch)

A Swiss nurse has set up a project to provide medical care and moral support for communities in South Africa afflicted by HIV/Aids.

Sylvia Hamilton-Schweizer heads up a team of 21 carers who look after sufferers and their families in a country that has the largest HIV population in the world.

In South Africa, one in five people are infected with the HIV virus.

Hamilton-Schweizer's team work mainly in the remote town of Ingwavuma in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal and focus on giving help to those who are too weak to travel to hospital.

swissinfo: Can you describe a typical day in the bush?

Sylvia Hamilton-Schweizer: We drive into the bush and we visit people at their homes. We sit down on the floor, on a grass mat and start talking to people about their health, their family problems, their financial situation.

We often start by singing and praying together. It's an area where faith is quite important. We see about 400 patients a month, and we have about 15 to 20 deaths per month. So we often talk about those we've lost or I often hear stories about people who are getting better.

swissinfo: So you're not just dispensing medication?

S.H.S.: No, it's much more. We try to offer a holistic approach. Some people ask for prayers, some for spiritual support, some people need advice on how to get financial stability, such as child support grants.

And then, of course, if some people are in pain or if they have infections, then I am able as a professional nurse to dispense medication.

swissinfo: How have you been received by the community there?

S.H.S.: I must say I'm very surprised. I thought it would take about two or three years to really be accepted by the community, but it was much easier.

I'm sure it was also because of the home-based caregivers, who talk to the local chiefs to explain the project and what we're doing... it's also because [they] are extremely caring and nice people. They have won the hearts of the people.

swissinfo: There has been criticism about how South Africa is handling Aids. Nelson Mandela has criticised the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, for not acknowledging the disease. What is your opinion?

S.H.S.: I can see that for the crucial years - the last four or five years - the message was not straightforward enough. And that definitely had an impact on how people behaved towards the disease.

But in the last year, there has been a change. People are starting to become more open. But I think that the damage that has been done.

We think between 35 to 40 per cent of the population in Ingwavuma is HIV positive and I don't know how many cases could have been prevented with a clearer strategy by the government.

swissinfo: Do you have any vision for the future of this project?

S.H.S.: At the moment it's very much a mixture of a government and a private project. And I would love to see it as a government project, with the department of health taking over.

swissinfo-interview: Karin Kamp

In brief

Sylvia Hamilton-Schweizer was born in South Africa to Swiss parents but has spent most of her life in the Swiss capital, Bern.

A trained nurse, she moved to South Africa in 1996 to work in a hospital, but returned to Switzerland a year later to work in a hospital on a ward for infectious diseases.

In 2001, she returned to South Africa to set up the home-based care project.

She has learned Zulu, the language spoken in KwaZulu-Natal.

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Key facts

The carers are locals who have been trained to help people in their own communities.
The project is funded by both the government and private donations.
The carers earn about 1,300 Rand (SFr260) per month.

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