I-Africa News Agency 29 Oct. 1999

The pharmaceutical company Glaxo Wellcome and AIDS activists have expressed surprise at claims by President Thabo Mbeki that the anti-AIDS drug AZT could be harmful.

Speaking in the National Council of Provinces for the first time since his inauguration in June, Mbeki dismissed calls for government to make the drug available in public hospitals. He ordered Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and the South African medical authorities to urgently establish the truth about AZT.

The President said legal cases are pending locally, in Britain and America about the toxicity of AZT, and volumes of scientific literature raise serious questions about the dangers it could pose to people's health.

The manufacturers of AZT, Glaxo Wellcome, say it has been registered as a drug with the Medicines Control Council in South Africa for the last ten years. It has also been approved for use by leading international medical facilities. They deny that there are court cases pending against the company, and are not aware of cases against the drug abroad.

AIDS activists agree that the drug has side effects, but say it improves the quality of life of millions living with HIV and AIDS. They likened AZT treatment to that of chemotherapy for cancer.

Meanwhile, police say they are unable to respond to Mbeki's suggestion that there is no evidence to support their claim that only one in every 36 rape cases is reported. A police spokesperson says they are still studying the statement.

Mbeki said his government would fight AIDS and the terrible crime of rape responsibly, but stressed that that meant action based on sound evidence and substantiated figures.