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The Sub City: What Lies Beneath Johannesburg

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What secrets does a city hold within its bosom? In Johannesburg, one of them is an intriguing
labyrinth of tunnels that once served as a postal delivery system. Could such relics of the past be the subterranean realms of the future? Urban planning points to what is now called ‘hypogeal cities’.

Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD) holds a secret within its deep, dark belly.

On the surface are the citadels of power housing some of Africa’s oldest and biggest corporate institutions.

Beneath this morass of steel and concrete, is a labyrinth of tunnels few know of.

We search for them, walking miles in the sun, scouring the grimy innards and alleys of a business district that was once seen and filmed by Hollywood producers as a Manhattan ‘lookalike’.

These streets have been witness to searing political upheaval and mass unrest, and bear the scars of a brutal apartheid past.

But every city needs daily witnesses in its account of the here and now, and you find them on the streets – the shopkeepers, traders, commuters and the security guards who watch the CBD change color and character from morning to night.

And sometimes, the best leads come from these purveyors of change, the ordinary people who witness the city up close every day.

The entrance to one of the tunnels which run 3km in total under Johannesburg.

And luckily, we find ours – the security guard who will indirectly lead us to the tunnels.

“Yes, I have been inside these underground tunnels,” he says, reluctant to reveal his name or tell us more. He relents, however, and gives us a number we can call, that of the site manager of what he calls “the Post Office tunnels”.

With his help, on a sultry October morning, we arrive at the Old Johannesburg Post Office on Jeppe Street, a street lined with shops and informal traders selling everything from cell phones to socks.

Business here has a life and rhythm of its own, oblivious to what lies beneath.

“I have been living and working here for 30 years and I have never heard of what you are talking about,” shrugs Givemore Sithole, a worker in the area, when we ask if he knows about them.

But history and fact co-exist.

According to an 80-year-old report simply known as “the heritage report”, the tunnels were built in October 1935, at the height of apartheid, for the effective delivery of mail between the Post Office and Park Station, about 2km apart.

The tunnels also connect to Gandhi Square at its other end, and in total, are 3kms-long.

“This tunnel was built at a time when more and more people were coming to Johannesburg to look for work in the City of Gold. There was a lot of congestion on the roads and they created this big ‘machine’, which I hear even connects to Gandhi Square, which is about another 1.2 kilometers away,” says Johan Visser, a site manager at the

Africa Housing Company, which is redeveloping the Old Johannesburg Post Office.

Johan Visser. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

Before we meet him, we run into a real estate agent, who is currently leasing space at the site of the old post office. We ask if she knows about the history of the building – how was she pitching the property to prospective clients? Did she know about the tunnels?

“I can’t believe there are tunnels here. I have never even heard of them but I think people would appreciate this place more if they did,” she tells us, not wanting to be named.

Even the construction laborers working on the post office site are unaware.

Visser takes us to the tunnels. We find the entrance, with the help of his colleagues, and it’s wide enough to fit a small car.

It has a large red metal door, with access temporarily blocked by bulky construction material.

The workers manage to clear the entry and open the door. Inside the tunnel, it’s like a big black hole – it’s pitch-black but holding within its bowels an old secret.

“Beware of rodents and snakes in there,” warns Visser, as we gingerly step in.

Through this tunnel, according to the heritage report, estimates are that 900 bags of mail were conveyed on wheelbarrows and sifted per hour at each end. They also had rudimentary versions of the conveyor belts of today.

The tunnels were shut down in 1956 for reasons not known, abandoned and forgotten, until about two years ago when they were rediscovered by Ray Harli, an architect and Director at UrbanSoup Architects and Urban Designers.

We meet him at the post office end of the tunnel, but he recounts how he stumbled upon the Park Station side of it – and the intriguing network he discovered under the surface.

Underground construction in the 1930s

Work progresses at the Old Johannesburg Post Office. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

“We are constructing a very large transport hub in Newtown [part of Johannesburg’s inner city]. While we were excavating, we came across an opening. We weren’t sure what it was and when we went inside, we discovered the tunnel, and realized it goes deep. Finding the tunnels felt like a treasure hunt. It was also partially scary because it was very dark inside. We didn’t go in deep that day and went back a few weeks later with a full team. We walked inside for over a kilometer. There was water inside and we had to turn back when the water was too high,” says Harli.

About 6,000 kilometers away in Egypt, almost a century ago, one can almost imagine the euphoria that must have accompanied Howard Carter’s discovery of the chambers that led to King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

But Harli was pragmatic; soon after the discovery, he went straight to his office and contacted the Department of Heritage to learn more about the subterranean discovery.

Ray Harli, Architect. Photo By Motlabana Monnakgotla.

While the tunnels were operated by the post office, they were constructed by the workers who built the railroads of the time. It’s a fact revealed by Anne Benson, whose grandfather, William Pryce-Rosser, she says, designed the tunnels.

“We have a whole album of photos of the tunnels being built. My grandfather used to tell us the tunnels were there and he had worked on them. He was involved in a lot of work at the time and he was very proud of them,” says Benson. The pictures she has of the tunnel being constructed are indeed rare.

She also shares with us the typed-out ‘thank you letter’ her grandfather received in 1934 from the ‘Town Clerk’s Department’.

The tunnels cost a fortune in their day. For example, according to the yellowing heritage report referred to earlier, it cost a whopping £170,000 at the time and used 15,750 tons of concrete. There was also a section of the tunnel called ‘parcels and baggage’, which was 914 metres long and cost £71,000 to build; and then a section called ‘signals’, which was 640 meters long.

“The city didn’t know about the tunnels, but the Department of Heritage did,” says Harli.

Since learning about them, Harli has been looking into how these tunnels can be best put to use.

“Now, people call me ‘Mr Tunnels’,” he laughs.

“A year before we found these tunnels, I was in New York and they have an underground tunnel that they have converted into what they call the world’s first underground park. They cut holes on the pavement up above to let light inside. They even have trees underground,” says Harli.

Inspired, he hopes the Johannesburg tunnels could be commercialized too.

“The world is moving in very interesting directions and we can use places like this that already exist for underground developments. For example, the idea is to link Park Station with our transport facility in Newtown so that there is a direct pedestrian link underground. Having this direct link will bring connectivity between different transport hubs. A more ambitious plan would be to build a commercial retail space with coffee shops and art exhibitions,” Harli says of his plans.

According to him, with the right type of management, this could become a destination space. He offers the example of the city’s stylish Maboneng Precinct, which had been abandoned but was revamped and turned into a key tourist destination featuring food markets and art galleries.

“People desperately want [options]. Changing this up can be a very good opportunity which will also preserve the heritage,” says Harli, calling the potential development “a sub city”.

Harli adds that the problem with the Johannesburg tunnels is that there is no agreement on who owns them.

He says he would need about R30 million ($2 million) to turn them into “a heritage shrine” where people can enjoy them as green, public spaces.

“It is also hard to convince government to spend on this type of development because there are some major problems in the inner city. Some people could argue a space like this is a ‘nice to have’ but our argument is that it is something that could be commercialized,” says Harli, who is considering a few rounds of crowdfunding to kick-start the project.

“I have told the city about what we would like to do but we need to find out who definitively owns the tunnels.”

The ownership is unclear, and this is a fact reiterated by a contact we meet at the Johannesburg Development Agency, which is the city’s real estate developer.

READ MORE: The Brain of Africa more of an artist than an architect

Harli wants to get down to business at the tunnels, but Africa Housing Company, which owns the Old Johannesburg Post Office, has plans to fix the building and turn it into apartments and commercial shops.

“There is a lot of history here. We are turning the place into shops and apartments while keeping its history. We restore and repair, but most of the things are still here. The only problem is that when the building was abandoned, there were dwellers living here who took some of the things, like all the brass and copper wires,” says Visser, showing us the granite table at the reception that is still in the same spot as it was at the old post office.

Africa Housing Company has retained the windows, murals, the clock, telegram booths, doors, ceilings and stairs, adhering to the old look and feel.

“This is a historic building, so we have to keep as much as we can as is,” says Visser, showing us some of the over 200 apartments now built where the old post office was.
At Gandhi Square, which is said to have yet another entrance into the tunnels, there is already some commercial activity underground.

An entrepreneur, Gerald Garner, owns Zwipi, an underground bar here, which was once an old bank vault with safety boxes. He also owns JoburgPlaces, which offers walking tours. Garner has been offering inner-city walking tours since 2011.

Gerald Mandevhana. Photo provided.

“Since it is such a historic building, it made sense to open a restaurant-bar in the old bank vault. We also do most of our walking tours through this space and host safaris and secret underground dinners here.”

It just points to the fact that such areas can be re-conceptualized and commissioned back to life.

WILL UNDERGROUND RESIDENCES WORK?
According to Namibia-based architect Gerald Mandevhana, many countries like Finland and China have even gone further, with concepts like underground homes.

According to Mandevhana, Mexico City even proposed an ‘earthscraper concept’, a 75-storey pyramid going 300 meters into the ground to accommodate about 100,000 people, and Singapore built a subterranean oil storage facility that goes down 100 meters.

Mandevhana says the idea of underground living is not as far-fetched as we may think.

African people have lived underground for centuries, he says.

“Two hundred thousand years back, some of the homosapiens led troglodyte lives in caves in South Africa.”

However, Mandevhana acknowledges a lot has changed in the last 200 millennia and today, the prospect of underground living has to come with readjustments to suit modern lives.

“On an infrastructure level, I believe we can actually implement the move. The architecture, engineering and construction industry in Africa is quite advanced now and several avant-garde practices and technologies are already being implemented,” he says.

However, at a systems level, he says the world has a long way to go because cities are complex organisms.

“Many concepts have been pushed up to define and idealize cities; central place theory, garden city movement, radiant city, city beautiful movement, broadacre city, right up to today’s smart cities with artificial intelligence and deep learning systems at the heart of things. As complex socio-technical organisms, all systems will need to be reviewed to ensure they optimize interactions between people, technology and the new hypogeal environment. Our systems are not yet ready for urban scale shifts towards subterranean life,” he says.

Harli and Mandevhana both see the potential of commercial spaces underground.

But Harli too is of the opinion that, in Africa, underground housing may be difficult to implement.

“You cannot justify building accommodation underground right now in Johannesburg when there are many abandoned buildings. I understand in China, where space is a problem. I don’t see residences underground but rather underground public space with commercial spaces,” says Harli, adding that building underground will always be a more expensive proposition than construction above the ground.

“For example, building an underground parking structure is five times the cost of building one above the ground,’ he says.
Deon Du Plessis, Function Manager, Urban Development, at SMEC, a multi-disciplinary engineering and infrastructure solutions company, agrees.

Deon Du Plessis. Photo provided.

“It costs more to drill down the ground. We also still have a lot of land that we can build on in Africa. From a health and safety point of view, it will also be a challenge because you need ventilation and fire protection down there, for instance,” says Du Plessis.

Mandevhana says that building underground has higher initial costs but says there are anticipated lower-running costs as well, which implies “a less-costly lifecycle” compared to surface developments.

“The negative is that, currently, the resale value of these homes is quite low, as prospective buyers avoid them due to their unconventional nature. At an urban scale, the amount of earth that will need to be removed to create volumes for the developments will be something to think about,” says Mandevhana.

There are ups and downs to several of these hypotheses.

Science informs us that underground developments will not need costly heating and cooling systems due to the thermophysical properties of the earth; they could be used as shelter from adverse weather; and would require little, if any, exterior maintenance.

Another big question or concern is that of food supply underground. Would we be able to grow food underground?
Mandevhana has some answers.

“Due to similar conditions between underground spaces and greenhouses, it’s possible to grow the same types of food that we grow on the surface, but again, there is an opportunity to use the surface for agricultural purposes, afforestation and reforestation to reverse global warming, for instance,” he says.

Based on questions that have arisen from the recently-unearthed ancient Turkish city of Nevşehir, perhaps an even bigger concern is if humans will be able to physically and psychologically adapt to life underground.

“The generalizations about these factors affect the applicability of hypogeal cities. Sensory deprivation is one such factor, people are stimulated by their surrounding environment, and this becomes critical in small, enclosed spaces. On the physiological side, the challenges are associated with lack of natural light, indoor air quality, high humidity levels underground, and even lack of noise,” says Mandevhana.

It means the fundamental principles of urban design and urban planning will need to be redefined, the role of the urbanist and the architect will need to be clarified and the engineering field will need to establish relevant innovations to provide appropriate solutions if we are to go the underground mass residential route in Africa.

Du Plessis thinks the first priority is to fix the infrastructure problems we have now, before exploring underground options. “Our cities are growing at such a rapid rate that we can’t keep doing what we are doing. It is not sustainable. Our biggest opportunity is to revitalize Hillbrow and the central business district,” he says.

His first call is to build more compact cities that are taller.

“The trick is to provide urban spaces that actually work. You don’t just need a roof over your head but you need to be safe, be able to work, for children to be able to play in the park and having attractive spaces. It is a much bigger social construct that needs to be addressed. We need to build much closer to where we work,” he says.

Du Plessis thinks underground developments, like the Johannesburg tunnels, can best be used to provide better transport routes for people to get to work faster.

Be it for commercial space, housing or transportation, it seems these old tunnels have triggered a new debate that may change the way we live. Forever.

 

 

 

 

 

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What does it mean to be HIV-undetectable or to have a suppressed viral load?

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With medication and technology, science is increasingly improving the lives of people living with HIV and reducing new infections.


On August 8, 2018, a day before Women’s Day in South Africa, 23-year-old Saidy Brown observed six years of being on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. 

We meet Brown in her hotel room in Benoni in the East Rand in the South African Province of Gauteng.

She sits still, reflecting on her life after a long and busy day. She has just returned from a group meeting with other young HIV activists.

Her t-shirt is unapologetic and as loud as her activism. “HIV POSITIVE #TEST & TREAT,” it reads. In the dim light of her room, she recollects her dark journey to becoming an HIV activist.

Brown was diagnosed with HIV at birth. However, she only found out she had it at the age of 14.

Brown grew up in a small town called Itsoseng in the North West Province of South Africa. In June 2009, while attending a youth day event, Brown and some of her friends decided to get tested for free.

The eager teen received some pre-counselling from one of the nurses.

“I remember getting into that room and the lady asked me two questions, ‘what would you do if you find out that you are HIV negative’?”

“I would continue living,” Brown said.

“What will you do if you find out you are HIV positive?”

“I would go out there and educate people living with HIV,” she said to the nurse.

Brown tested positive. Her whole life changed in the space of five minutes.

“After she told me, the first thing I said was ‘how? I didn’t do anything, I am only 14’.”

While her friends were discussing their results, Brown broke the news to them. They were all surprised.


Saidy Brown’s t-shirt is unapologetic and as loud as her activism. “HIV POSITIVE #TEST & TREAT,” it reads. Picture: Karen Mwendera

“I then told them ‘no, I’m kidding, I am negative’.”

Brown was ashamed and could not confide in anyone.

“I really wanted to go home and cry. Like, I didn’t even know where I got it from,” Brown says.

She was afraid of what her family, friends and community would think of her. For months, she kept it to herself. But the secret about her health was too overwhelming.

Later that year, Brown joined a drama club. They rehearsed for a play to be staged on  World AIDS Day, on December 1. She played the daughter of a woman who was HIV positive.

Little did her peers know that Brown was actually telling her real life story. A few days later, conversations with Brown’s drama teacher got her to divulge her secret.

She later gathered up the courage to confide in her aunt. Her aunt then revealed that Brown’s late parents had indeed been HIV positive.

“I was angry at my aunt for not having tested me earlier on, I was angry at my parents for having died before me knowing, I was angry at God, I was just angry at everyone,” she says.

She turned to writing to cope.  The first piece she wrote was titled An Open Letter To HIV.

“I will always remember this line because I paused there and I cried so much. There is a line where I said, ‘because of you I feel less pretty’.”

This marked the beginning of her activism. She shared the letter on social media and it reached thousands.

For 14 years, Brown had lived a healthy life with the disease without any treatment. Brown disclosed her status to close friends and received huge support.

It was only when she turned 18 that her health began to deteriorate. Hesitant to start treatment, Brown thought about the rumors she heard about the side-effects of ARV.

When she went for blood tests, she was told her CD4 count had dropped. According to experts, when the CD4 count drops below 200, a person is diagnosed with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

READ MORE |The Fight for Rights: Five Gains and Five Losses for Women in 2018

“I think that was when reality started kicking in that ‘you need to be on treatment’,” she says.

In 2012, she finally started ARV treatment. Since then, Brown has been living a healthy life

She uses her experience to encourage others living with HIV and to break the stigma. In June 2017, she recited An Open Letter To HIV at the eighth South African AIDS Conference addressing HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence.

She held governments and societies accountable.

The same year, she received the Red Ribbon Foundation Youth for Change HIV/AIDS Activist Award.

In 2018, she was recognized as one of the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans, for her work as an activist.

Brown considers herself an “HIVictor” and reaches thousands on her social media platform spreading awareness about the disease.

“There is life after an HIV diagnosis,” Brown shared with her followers on Twitter.

HIV-Undetectable

Today, Brown is HIV-undetectable.

She has been virally suppressed for two years now.

According to a report by UNAIDS in 2018, being undetectable means that the virus is un-transmittable.

This means that people who are HIV positive with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV sexually.

This was proven in 2017.

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl is a clinician and general practitioner with a special interest in HIV and women’s health.

She also uses her social media to spread awareness on the disease.

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl. Picture: Supplied

“The aim of ARV treatment is to achieve an undetectable or suppressed viral load. What is the viral load? It is the number of HIV copies in the blood. HIV uses CD4 cells to make copies of itself. If one is taking ARV treatment, the efficacy of the treatment is proven by an undetectable viral load. You’re still living with HIV, but you’re taking the treatment so well that the virus cannot make copies of itself,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

“The viral load blood test tells us when undetectable levels have been reached and it takes 12 to 24 weeks to achieve this,” Van Zyl says.

Three significant studies were done between 2007 and 2016 on sexual transmission of HIV among thousands of couples.

According to UNAIDS: “In those studies, there was not a single case of sexual transmission of HIV from a virally-suppressed person living with HIV to their HIV-negative partner.”

“For many people living with HIV, the news that they can no longer transmit HIV sexually is life-changing. In addition to being able to choose to have sex without a condom, many people living with HIV who are virally suppressed feel liberated from the stigma associated with living with the virus,” UNAIDS says.

However, the stigma still does exist.

A 28-year-old millennial, who requested not be named, tells FORBES AFRICA that she had never heard of what it means to ‘undetectable’.

When asked if she would be willing to have sexual relations with someone who was HIV positive but their viral load was undetectable, she says she is unsure.

“I would but I would be worried because mistakes happen. What if medical practitioners thought it was undetectable but they made a mistake and now my life is at risk,” she asks.

She is not alone in thinking this way.

From a quick social media search, it is evident many users are not well-informed about what an undetectable viral load means.

Some social media users who disclosed to be living with HIV said that even their own doctors had not informed them about what it meant to be ‘HIV undetectable’.

Through hashtags such as #UequalsU and #UndetectableEqualsUntransmittable, awareness around being ‘HIV undetectable’ has spread globally, giving freedom to many HIV positive people to share their status.

“[These are] the hashtags of the century, in my opinion! What does #UequalsU mean? If the viral load is undetectable, then one cannot transmit HIV!” Van Zyl says.

It is such activism that has contributed to the strides in HIV research.

A doctor from the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg agrees.

“I think that’s what makes the HIV space unique. Those activists are crucial… When patients talk, they talk as if they don’t have a voice, but with the activists, they have a voice and they are taken seriously and I think that has also been one of the big drivers,” Dr June Fabian, a nephrologist and clinical researcher at the medical center, tells FORBES AFRICA.

Transplanting to save a life

Two years ago, doctors from the transplant unit at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre performed what is believed to be the world’s first HIV positive liver transplant.

Currently, the center is the only transplant program doing transplants from one living person to another in southern Africa. 

The liver of a mother living with HIV was transplanted into her critically-ill HIV negative child.

After the transplant, the child was monitored and the doctors were not able to find HIV within the child’s system.

The child had been on a waiting list for more than 180 days and was frequently admitted for life-threatening complications of end-stage liver disease.

Professor Jean Botha led the procedure.

He was approached by the child’s mother to consider using her as her baby’s donor.

“We have had a case where we proposed the idea but the mom said, ‘I cannot live thinking that I’ll give HIV to my child’, and she said ‘no’, and the baby died,” Fabian, who was a part of the team, says.

It was a very complex situation.

They reviewed the implications of the transplant, consulted with other experts and then spoke to the ethics committee at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

“They came back and said, ‘if you are weighing up this child dying versus giving the child HIV then do it because, obviously, you want to prevent the child from dying’,” Fabian explains.

With the go-ahead, the team proceeded with the operations and assumed that the child would have the virus after the procedure.

But their assumptions were wrong.

“After the transplantation, we saw a seroconversion event. What that means is that the child became HIV positive,” Professor Caroline Tiemessen from the Wits School of Pathology and Centre for HIV and STIs, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said in a report.

Soon after, they observed that the virus was no longer detectable. They then monitored the child’s antibodies and tested the viral load, however, she said it has remained undetectable since.

They have since not been able to trace the virus within the cells of the child.

“The liver is an immune organ so it’s the liver’s job to kill bugs… so I think in a way we might have struck it lucky with the liver. I don’t know if we can say what happened here is going to happen with a heart, a kidney or a lung,” Fabian says.

Despite not being able to detect the virus, the child was placed under ARV treatment.

Fabian says the only way to know for sure that there is no HIV in the child is if they completely stop treatment.

However, it would be a risk.

In 2017, a similar case was announced where a nine-year-old South African who had been diagnosed with HIV at a month old, received treatment, and then maintained remission after suppressing the virus for almost nine years without the treatment since 2008.

It has been more than a year since the liver transplant took place and both the mother and child are recovering well.

According to Fabian, they plan to continue doing more tests.

HIV Positive: The New Living Donor Pool?

At a time when South Africa is experiencing a shortage of organ donors, this may be a solution to the problem if people living with HIV may be able to donate organs.

In the early 2000s, Fabian’s work dealt with organ transplants and HIV before ARVs were created.

“We started seeing the disease untreated, and there was a lot of kidney disease so that was what sparked my interest and I started a study in the clinic with patients with HIV and kidney disease,” she says.

However, HIV patients back then were excluded from transplantation.

“We were basically throwing away organs from HIV-positive donors because we weren’t using them,” she says.

Dr June Fabian. Picture: Supplied

With a shortage of organ donors, Fabian says they lost 25 children on the waiting list.

According to an article by theSouthAfrican.com, there are around 4,300 people waiting for organ donations in South Africa in need of new livers, kidneys, lungs or hearts.

“The inclusion of HIV-infected people as living donors created the new living donor pool,” say experts from the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre.

This means that people like Brown who have been living with an undetectable viral load could be eligible as donors after tests have been done.

As for whether or not HIV-positive patients could potentially become blood donors, more work needs to be done in that field.

At the moment, Fabian does not think it is possible.

 “I don’t know if you would put someone on life-long antiretroviral for a blood transfusion. I don’t think the benefit outweighs the risk when you can source blood from non-infected donors and the person isn’t going to die if they don’t get the transfusion,”  Fabian says.

The evolution of ARVs

The first ARV treatment trial happened in the 1990s and in 2004, South Africa first rolled out its ARV program to people living with HIV.

ARV treatment has gone from taking several tablets a day to one pill daily.

 Now, patients, particularly in South Africa, can receive free treatment.

According to a report on HIV and AIDS financing by the South African Health Review, South Africa has the largest number of persons living with HIV and on ARV-treatment in the world, with this figure scaling up by approximately 400,000 persons per annum.

UNAIDS estimates there are 20% of people on ARV therapy globally.

HIV-related deaths have been decreasing as the number of people receiving ARVs is growing.

In 2008, the death rate was about 220,000 to 260,000 in South Africa.

In 2016, estimates between 96,000 to 140,000 of AIDS-related deaths in the country were reported.

“I think what is underappreciated is how much people’s lives have changed with ARVs and with access to ARVs and how much the science and the funding with ARVs has driven it from being a very complicated regimen to one tablet a day,” Fabian says.

And now, access to obtaining ARVs has become easier and they are getting smaller.

“The tablet is getting smaller and smaller, which is great for storage, great for carrying, makes it cheaper, it’s also easier to swallow,” says Professor Francois Venter, the Deputy Executive Director at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute.

Last year, South Africa saw the introduction of an ATM which uses electronic and robotic technology to dispense medication.

This allows patients to collect medication without having to queue at hospitals.

On the continent, clinical trials of injectable ARV drugs are currently underway.

This is part of a large-scale trial that will be conducted in six other countries –Kenya, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Swaziland.

According to a news report in The East African, the aim of the study is to introduce an injection once every two months.

“They are starting to work on a new implant. It is very early days but it is very, very exciting. So instead of taking your ARVs you just get an implant every year,” Venter says.

“ARVs are looking more and more like hormonal contraception … It is like having several choices.”

He predicts that they will become available in the next five to 10 years.

 Other new developments include the HIV vaccine trial (please read more on pages 44-47).

 As HIV research grows rapidly, Fabian says that other chronic disease studies can gain from its developments.

“If you look at how we manage TB [tuberculosis], there is very little progress that has been anywhere as rapid as HIV, in terms of making treatment accessible and simple for people,” Fabian says.

Venter agrees: “The funny thing is people with HIV are now living longer than the general population in certain spaces.”

A study in the United States found this to be true.

In 2014, an estimated 45% of those HIV-infected were older than 50, amounting to 428,724 people, while 27% were older than 55 and 6% were 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, more work still needs to be done in this regard.

Venter says that technology has significantly aided HIV research.

“There are new ways to measure HIV which are getting more available and the price is coming down,” he says.

“There are also new ways for testing for HIV which are very exciting.”

“Because the cost of antiretrovirals has gone down so dramatically, HIV is actually relatively cheap to treat, compared to diabetes,” he says.

“It also keeps people away from the medical system which is very expensive,” he adds.

Despite the great strides taken to improve HIV treatment, a cure is still nowhere to be found.

“I think we are getting closer [to a cure] with vaccines,” Fabian says, hopeful.

Venter, on the other hand, believes we are still far from discovering a cure.

“I am not particularly hopeful because I think the scientific challenges of it are so hard that I am not sure it is going to be possible, but I hope I am wrong,” Venter says.

He says that there have been large amounts of money diverted to looking for a cure and that we are learning more about the immune system.

Professor Francois Venter. Picture:Supplied

“Even if we may not find a cure, we are going to learn a lot about vaccines and the complexity of the human body,” he says.

For now, the importance of spreading awareness is still essential. Activists like Brown and Van Zyl can attest to that.

The world has gone from a deadly epidemic, to undetectable victories and vaccines in three decades.

We are witnesses to history in the making. Where will you be when a cure is found?

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Software Pirates Use Apple Tech To Put Hacked Apps On iPhones

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Software pirates have hijacked technology designed by Apple Inc to distribute hacked versions of Spotify, Angry Birds, Pokemon Go, Minecraft and other popular apps on iPhones.

Illicit software distributors such as TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox have found ways to use digital certificates to get access to a program Apple introduced to let corporations distribute business apps to their employees without going through Apple’s tightly controlled App Store.

Using so-called enterprise developer certificates, these pirate operations are providing modified versions of popular apps to consumers, enabling them to stream music without ads and to circumvent fees and rules in games, depriving Apple and legitimate app makers of revenue.

By doing so, the pirate app distributors are violating the rules of Apple’s developer programs, which only allow apps to be distributed to the general public through the App Store. Downloading modified versions violates the terms of service of almost all major apps.

TutuApp, Panda Helper, AppValley and TweakBox did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Apple has no way of tracking the real-time distribution of these certificates, or the spread of improperly modified apps on its phones, but it can cancel the certificates if it finds misuse.

“Developers that abuse our enterprise certificates are in violation of the Apple Developer Enterprise Program Agreement and will have their certificates terminated, and if appropriate, they will be removed from our Developer Program completely,” an Apple spokesperson told Reuters. “We are continuously evaluating the cases of misuse and are prepared to take immediate action.”

After Reuters initially contacted Apple for comment last week, some of the pirates were banned from the system, but within days they were using different certificates and were operational again.

“There’s nothing stopping these companies from doing this again from another team, another developer account,” said Amine Hambaba, head of security at software firm Shape Security.

Apple confirmed a media report on Wednesday that it would require two-factor authentication – using a code sent to a phone as well as a password – to log into all developer accounts by the end of this month, which could help prevent certificate misuse.

Major app makers Spotify Technology SA, Rovio Entertainment Oyj and Niantic Inc have begun to fight back.

Spotify declined to comment on the matter of modified apps, but the streaming music provider did say earlier this month that its new terms of service would crack down on users who are “creating or distributing tools designed to block advertisements” on its service.

Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds mobile games, said it actively works with partners to address infringement “for the benefit of both our player community and Rovio as a business.”

Niantic, which makes Pokemon Go, said players who use pirated apps that enable cheating on its game are regularly banned for violating its terms of service. Microsoft Corp, which owns the creative building game Minecraft, declined to comment.

SIPHONING OFF REVENUE

It is unclear how much revenue the pirate distributors are siphoning away from Apple and legitimate app makers.

TutuApp offers a free version of Minecraft, which costs $6.99 in Apple’s App Store. AppValley offers a version of Spotify’s free streaming music service with the advertisements stripped away.

The distributors make money by charging $13 or more per year for subscriptions to what they calls “VIP” versions of their services, which they say are more stable than the free versions. It is impossible to know how many users buy such subscriptions, but the pirate distributors combined have more than 600,000 followers on Twitter.

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Security researchers have long warned about the misuse of enterprise developer certificates, which act as digital keys that tell an iPhone a piece of software downloaded from the internet can be trusted and opened. They are the centerpiece of Apple’s program for corporate apps and enable consumers to install apps onto iPhones without Apple’s knowledge.

Apple last month briefly banned Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc from using enterprise certificates after they used them to distribute data-gathering apps to consumers.

The distributors of pirated apps seen by Reuters are using certificates obtained in the name of legitimate businesses, although it is unclear how. Several pirates have impersonated a subsidiary of China Mobile Ltd. China Mobile did not respond to requests for comment.

Tech news website TechCrunch earlier this week reported that certificate abuse also enabled the distribution of apps for pornography and gambling, both of which are banned from the App Store.

Since the App Store debuted in 2008, Apple has sought to portray the iPhone as safer than rival Android devices because Apple reviews and approves all apps distributed to the devices.

Early on, hackers “jailbroke” iPhones by modifying their software to evade Apple’s controls, but that process voided the iPhone’s warranty and scared off many casual users. The misuse of the enterprise certificates seen by Reuters does not rely on jailbreaking and can be used on unmodified iPhones. -Reuters

-Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave

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Earth’s Earliest Mobile Organisms Lived 2.1 Billion Years Ago

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Scientists have discovered in 2.1-billion-year-old black shale from a quarry in Gabon the earliest evidence of a revolutionary development in the history of life on Earth, the ability of organisms to move from one place to another on their own.

The researchers on Monday described exquisitely preserved fossils of small tubular structures created when unknown organisms moved through soft mud in search of food in a calm and shallow marine ecosystem. The fossils dated back to a time when Earth was oxygen-rich and boasted conditions conducive to simple cellular life evolving more complexity, they said.

Life emerged in Earth’s seas as single-celled bacterial organisms perhaps 4 billion years ago, but the earliest life forms lacked the ability to move independently, called motility. The Gabon fossils are roughly 1.5 billion years older than the previous earliest evidence of motility and appearance of animal life.

The Gabonese shale deposits have been a treasure trove, also containing fossils of the oldest-known multicellular organisms.

“What matters here is their astonishing complexity and diversity in shape and size, and likely in terms of metabolic, developmental and behavioral patterns, including the just-discovered earliest evidence of motility, at least for certain among them,” said paleobiogeochemist and sedimentologist Abderrazak El Albani of the University of Poitiers in France.

The identity of these pioneering mobile organisms remains mysterious. The fossils did not include the organisms themselves.

The tubular structures, up to 6.7 inches (170 mm long), originally were made of organic matter, perhaps mucus strands left by organisms moving through mud.

The researchers said the structures may have been created by a multicellular organism or an aggregation of single-celled organisms akin to the slug-like organism formed when certain amoebas cluster together in lean times to move collectively to find a more hospitable environment.

“Life during the so-called Paleoproterozoic Era, 2.5 to 1.6 billion years ago, was not only bacterial, but more complex organisms had emerged at some point, likely only during some phases and under certain environmental circumstances,” El Albani said.

In comparison, the first vertebrates appeared about 525 million years ago, dinosaurs about 230 million years ago and Homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago.

The evolutionary experimentation with motility may have encountered a setback relatively soon after the Gabon organisms lived because of a dramatic drop in atmospheric oxygen 2.08 billion years ago.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. -Reuters

-Will Dunham

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