MBEKI ON AIDS
Head in sand, foot in mouth
By Bryan Pearson
AFP 10 Sept. 2001
President Thabo Mbeki, who questions the link between HIV and AIDS, is again
under fire, this time for using outdated statistics to bolster his claim
that HIV/AIDS is not South Africa's leading cause of death.
Mbeki said in a letter to Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, a copy
of which was published on Monday in Business Day newspaper, that
government's spending on health services should be re-examined in the light
of World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics he found on the Internet,
South Africa's main political opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) described
Mbeki's letter as "bizarre" and said it proves he is in denial of the
HIV/AIDS problem that is ravaging the country.
The WHO 1995 figures back up Mbeki's assertion that AIDS is not the leading
cause of death in the country, accounting for just 2,2% of fatalities, way
behind external causes such as homicide, accidents and suicides, and a host
of other categories.
Business Day says, however, that a South African Medical Research Council
(MRC) report to be published soon is expected to show that AIDS has indeed
become the leading cause of death in the country.
The daily said the MRC report will clearly show that the pattern of AIDS
deaths has shifted significantly since the mid-1990s, the period from which
Mbeki's statistics come.
Mbeki in his letter warns the health minister that the figures will "provoke
a howl of displeasure and a concerted propaganda campaign from those who
have convinced themselves that HIV/AIDS is the single biggest cause of
death" in South Africa.
The South African leader has been criticised internationally for having said
in 2000 that AIDS might not be directly caused by HIV, despite the fact that
South Africa has the world's largest HIV population with 4,7-million
In the letter, which a presidential representative has confirmed was indeed
written by the president, Mbeki instructs the minister to examine the WHO
statistics and assess whether "our health policies and therefore the
allocation of resources reflect the incidence of death as reflected by these
He urged Tshabalala-Msimang to institute a recommendation by an AIDS panel
he has set up - comprising among others experts who question the link
between HIV and AIDS - that statistics "which are regularly peddled as a
true representation of what is happening in our country" be thoroughly
Toby Kasper of international humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres
(MSF) in Cape Town said figures to be released by the MRC will put an end to
the president's assertion that AIDS is not the primary cause of death in the
"The data that will be coming out suggests that AIDS is not only the leading
cause of death but in South Africa but may outweigh all the other causes
together," he said.
He said Mbeki was basing his arguments on "outdated data" and that this was
going to "lead you to incorrect conclusions."
DA deputy health representative Sandy Kalyan, meanwhile, said that figures
for 1999 from assurance companies - the latest available - show that 23 000
people died violently in that year against 250 000 who died of AIDS-related
The letter, she said, "is just another example of the president's bizarre
behaviour over the whole HIV/AIDS pandemic."
"He's in complete denial of the problem."
Parliament has set aside R125-million ($14-million) in a special AIDS fund
for the 2001/2002 financial year, rising to R300-million ($36-million) the
But government refuses to provide anti-AIDS drugs on public health and is
currently being taken to court by Treatment Action Campaign lobby group in a
bid to force it to take immediate steps to prevent mother-to-infant
transmission of HIV.