A TIMELY FIRESTORM
Welcome To The Machine
By Celia Farber
Ironminds Dec. 1999
South African President Thabo Mbeki has
started an uproar by refusing to give pregnant
women AZT. With the International AIDS
Conference in Durban looming, the stage is set
for a major showdown.
Lucky for the AIDS establishment that South
Africa is so very far away; unlucky for them that
the International AIDS Conference will be held
there, in Durban, in a matter of months. Recent
developments have turned the nation into a
potential powder keg of dissent against the
HIV-AIDS paradigm, with none other than the
president of the country leading the resistance.
On October 28, South African President Thabo
Mbeki appeared on national television to explain
why the government is not giving AZT to
pregnant women, a practice common in many
African countries, which have become a
secondary market for the fallen drug. Credible
scientists, Mbeki said, have raised monumental
concerns about the toxicity of AZT, legal actions
have been brought against the drug in several
countries, and he is determined to “get to the real
“Somebody with the savvy, courage,
intelligence and determination of Mbeki is not
likely to be taken in by the self-interested rhetoric
of AZT’s defenders,” said Dr. Harvey Bialy, an
editor at Nature Biotechnology and a
longstanding critic of the AIDS establishment’s
paradigm, particularly its manifestation in Africa.
“To have him as an ally in this battle for the
acknowledgement of another simple truth is a
welcome way to end the century.”
Mbeki has instructed Health Minister Manto
Tshabalala-Msimang to launch a thorough
investigation into the concerns about AZT, “so
that to the extent that it is possible, we ourselves,
including our country’s medical authorities, are
certain of where the truth lies.”
Last year, former Health Minister Nkosazana
Zuma, who since has been promoted to foreign
affairs, made the controversial decision not to
make AZT available at state expense to
HIV-positive pregnant women in South Africa.
Zuma said she felt that money would be better
spent on public education. She was thunderously
condemned for being heartless.
Now Mbeki is taking the actual bull by the
horns and saying, to the astonishment of
everyone: Is this drug safe, and is it effective?
It is neither. AZT is a known carcinogen,
mutagen and teratogen, and it is listed in category
C in the FDA’s pregnancy hierarchy, meaning that
it is a drug “... in which safety in human
pregnancies has not been determined, animal
studies are either positive for fetal risk or have not
been conducted, and the drug should not be used
unless the potential benefit outweighs the
potential risk to the fetus.” It is a crude
chemotherapy drug that was originally shelved in
the 1960s because it was deemed too toxic for
In 1993, the Concorde Study, which was the first
major study on AZT that was not underwritten by
the drug’s manufacturer, found that patients who
received AZT had a 25 percent higher death rate
than those who received a placebo. AZT’s status
as a “miracle drug” that dramatically reduces the
rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV was
resurrected in 1994 after the ACTG 076 study,
which was funded by AZT manufacturer Glaxo
While that study did conclude that AZT could
lower transmission from 25.5 percent to 8.3
percent, subsequent studies have not repeated
the glowing results. In fact, a study in Malawi,
Africa, found that transmission was closely
correlated with levels of vitamin A in mothers and
that mothers with the highest levels of vitamin A
had a transmission rate of just 7.2 percent.
In addition, a 1995 study that focused on birth
defects in babies born to mothers in India who
had taken AZT during pregnancy, found that out
of 104 AZT-exposed fetuses, there were eight
spontaneous abortions, eight therapeutic
abortions and eight serious birth defects,
including extra digits on hands and feet. Extra
digits, as well as low-set ears, misshapen heads
and severe heart defects, have also been reported
in other AZT-exposed babies.
Despite all this, the most sacred tenet of
post-Thalidomide prenatal care — that pregnant
women be given no chemicals — was shattered in
the new zeal to get all HIV-positive pregnant
women around the globe on AZT.
Mbeki’s opposition represents the first
significant break against the dominant thinking
that surrounds AIDS, Africa and Western drugs,
which holds as gospel the maudlin notion that
people are dying in Africa because they have
been cruelly denied access to AIDS drugs like
In the hell that immediately broke loose in the
South African media following Mbeki’s act of
heresy, Tshabalala-Msimang told an angry mob of
reporters that a body of scientific research and
information indicates that AZT is a “dangerous
drug” and one that has not been designed for the
treatment of HIV/AIDS.
“We want to make sure that 15 years down the
road, there are no regrets,” she said.
Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang were promptly
attacked, ridiculed and condemned by the
nation’s media and AIDS activists, as the
inevitable flotsam of tangential issues were
dragged in to spread guilt and paralyze vital
Mbeki was accused of being callous toward the
country’s rape victims, which newspaper reports
cited as “a couple of million a year,” who depend
on AZT as a prophylactic to deter HIV infection.
But even Glaxo admits that the drug was never
approved to be given as a morning-after
AIDS-combating pill for rape victims.
Mbeki fanned the flames of feminist rage when he
rightly challenged a rape statistic that seemingly
had no real source. In 1997, the South African
Police Service put out the figure that only one in
36 rapes are ever reported in South Africa. “But,”
Mbeki said in his speech, “you will be surprised,
as I was, to learn that the police service could not
explain how this figure had been arrived at.”
(Many figures these days, especially figures out
of Africa, are not “arrived at” through any actual
analysis — they are not really figures at all; they
are a kind of oracular creation, a measure not of a
given reality but of a political or ideological
projection, or even a wish. All they tell you is how
you are supposed to feel.)
AIDS rhetoric never gets so smoky as when
the talk revolves around Africa — a continent
most AIDS reporters and scientists have never set
foot on. All you are meant to understand is that
HIV in Africa is spreading “rampantly,” that entire
populations are being “decimated,” and that this
is somehow meant to compensate for the failure of
the “heterosexual epidemic” to decimate
populations in the West.
As my two-part “Out of Africa” series in Spin
reported in 1992, the problem with AIDS in Africa
is that it shares the precise clinical definition as
common infectious diseases. This makes it
impossible to weed out “AIDS” from other
There is a powerful incentive to “call
everything AIDS,” as several Africans admitted
they do, because AIDS attracts World Health
Organization funding, whereas old diseases like
tuberculosis and malaria do not.
As Philippe Krynen, a French relief worker who
assisted AIDS orphans in Tanzania, told me, “If
people die of malaria, it is called AIDS. If they die
of herpes, it is called AIDS. I’ve even seen people
die in accidents, and it’s been attributed to AIDS.
The AIDS figures out of Africa are pure lies.”
When I traveled through Africa, I detected a
resentment brewing among intellectuals and
scientists against this wholesale importing of a
Western disease complete with an ideological
code and a program for behavioral control. Yet
Africa continues to be used as a kind of canvas
for anything and everything the AIDS
establishment and media wish to hurl at it.
Journalists howled and bayed at Mbeki’s
decision — which one paper called “nauseating”
— to investigate AZT. They called his actions
“irresponsible” and condemned the Medicine’s
Control Council for being involved in the probe.
And what of the Cape Town children, they asked,
who were given AZT after they played with
illegally dumped medical waste? Was Mbeki
going to deny them their right to the drug?
“The controversy,” one Johannesburg newspaper
bemoaned, “threatens to set back efforts to fight
the disease.” Mbeki, the newspaper reported, “...
said that it would be ‘irresponsible’ not to heed
the ‘dire warnings,’ of researchers about the
safety of AZT. ...”
“Reputable scientists have issued no such
warnings, and it was unclear what (Mbeki) was
referring to,” the story purported. The paper then
made the astonishing claim that 1,500 South
Africans are infected with HIV each day and that
“the government has come under increasing
pressure to provide drugs like AZT to infected
mothers and rape victims. The government has
said before that it cannot afford to do so, but this
is the first time in the public debate that an official
has so forcefully said a health danger is the
Mbeki educated himself about AIDS and the
concerns about AZT at least in part via the
Internet, beginning with an extensive critique from
Anthony Brink, a writer and attorney in South
Africa. Mbeki visited the various dissident Web
sites for information. Mbeki’s critics were quick to
ridicule him for doing this, even going so far as to
suggest that he was losing control of his faculties.
But Mbeki was not deterred.
Glaxo asked for an immediate meeting with
Mbeki. A meeting was eventually arranged
between Glaxo and Tshabalala-Msimang, at which
the drug company requested information about
what form the investigation would take. Glaxo
wanted to be involved in the investigation, but
was told that no, this wouldn’t be a good idea.
Glaxo must be surprised because it has funded
virtually every major AZT study ever to come out,
hence the seemingly indestructible myth that AZT
is a life-extending and “good” drug.
Mbeki is a rare and courageous leader to stand
up to Glaxo, the rest of the AIDS industry, the
media, activists and feminists. Interesting that
they should all be so apoplectic about a simple
investigation. If they are right about AZT, then
they surely have nothing to worry about. The next
few months should prove to be very interesting as
the AIDS establishment and dissidents prepare
for the inevitable showdown in Durban.
The next few months could also be a
vindication of sorts for Brink, who until recently
had been South Africa’s one-man Rethinking
AIDS movement, writing and battling with the
nation’s journalists and AIDS workers to draw
attention to the reality behind the AZT
mythology, as well as to the deeper problems with
the HIV-AIDS paradigm.
“I have pretty much been the only voice of
dissent in South Africa,” he said.
Well, now he is in excellent company.
Celia Farber is an Ironminds senior contributing
writer and a staff writer for Gear.