Paper has serious policy implications

By Pat Sidley

Business Day (SA) 20 Sep. 2001

The Medical Research Council's paper on AIDS mortality in SA was research that could be pivotal in lifting the country out of its "state of denial" on HIV/AIDS, council president Malegapuru Makgoba said yesterday.

The document, which has been well received by experts abroad, deals with mortality rates from HIV/AIDS.

It has been reviewed by, among others, the statistician-general of Wales and England.

The research states that AIDS is the country's leading cause of death and is responsible for the deaths of 40% of people aged be­tween 15 and 49 years of age.

The research had significant implications for policy and was "sensitive". It had therefore been decided that the findings should go through a process of discussion with policy-makers.

The process of finalising statistical data on mortality, and especially on the effect of HIV/AIDS in SA, was considered by the cabinet at its meeting yesterday.

Spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe said in a statement that the cabinet urged the relevant departments and Statistics SA "to expedite their consultations", and called on Stats SA in particular to explain its methods to the public in an accessible way.

The statement referred to "certified and credible statistics particularly on the impact of HIV/AIDS".

"This country will have to make a major commitment to policy and action" on the pandemic, Makgoba said.

He said a reasonable amount of time would be given to discussing the findings and implications, telling policy-makers about the work and listening to their concerns. Five government agencies were involved in the process: the departments of health, home affairs, social development, Statistics SA and the Human Sciences Research Council.

They had all supported the quality of the work "very strongly", Makgoba said, and endorsed the calibre of the research that the Medical Research Council had put into the project.

He said the council had conducted similar studies for more than 30 years and had a strong track record in the area.

The mortality research, Makgoba said, would be one of the "pieces of the jigsaw puzzle" of the pandemic and would help to form a better global understanding of it.

He felt the response from some of the media had been too harsh and "out of kilter with the spirit of the discussions". At no time had there been any muzzling of the report or deliberate delays from any quarters, he said.

"My own analysis after having been back in this country for the past six years is that the country is in complete denial. We need to lift the veil of denial," he said.

Makgoba said decisions would have to be made that would affect the disease, and hoped the report and its findings would create the spark needed for a turnaround in policy.

Finance Minister Trevor Manuel said in Parliament yesterday that the Medical Research Council's statistics could not be based on facts, only inferences, as AIDS was not a notifiable disease and in many cases was not given as the cause of death.

Democratic Alliance finance spokesman Ken Andrew said the reliance on inference was fairly common in determining the incidence of diseases.