By Joan Shenton

Carte Blanche 16 April 2000

South Africa is in the middle of an important re-evaluation about what has been described as the greatest plague the world has known - AIDS. Today there are many societies and communities around the world who profoundly challenge the idea that a virus, HIV, causes AIDS. Their voices have seldom been heard. In Pretoria, South Africa, President Thabo Mbecki is bringing together an international expert panel to allow a wider range of opinions to be heard.

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Because we have been as it were bought up on a orthodox view. Certain things that one thought one knows - HIV equals AIDS equals death. One of the things that became clear, and which was actually rather disturbing, was the fact that there was a view which was being expressed by people whose scientific credentials you canít question. I am not saying that they are necessarily correct, but it seems to me that there had been a determined effort to exclude their voice - to silence it.

JOAN SHENTON : Last year you were reported in Parliament as being concerned about giving AZT to pregnant mothers. Why were you concerned?

PRESIDENT MBEKI : Well, because lots of questions had been raised about the toxicity of the drug, which is very serious. We as the government have the responsibility to determine matters of public health, and therefore we can take decisions that impact directly on human beings, and it seemed to me that doubts had been raised about the toxicity and the efficacy of AZT and other drugs, so it was necessary to go into these matters. It wouldn't sit easily on one's conscience that you had been warned and there could be danger, but nevertheless you went ahead and said let's dispense these drugs.

JOAN SHENTON : Some AIDS doctors say the evidence is overwhelming that AIDS exists and AZT is of benefit. What is your comment on that?

PRESIDENT MBEKI : I say that why don't we bring all points of view. Sit around a table and discuss this evidence, and produce evidence as it may be, and let's see what the outcome is, which is why we are having this International panel which we are all talking about. They may very well be correct, but I think if they are correct and they are convinced they are correct, it would be a good thing to demonstrate to those who are wrong, that they are wrong.

JOAN SHENTON : People say you are not keen on giving AZT to pregnant women because it is too expensive and in some ways you are seen as penny-pinching. What do you reply to that?

PRESIDENT MBEKI : That surely must be a concern to anyone who decides this drug must be given to stop transmissions, again from mother to child, which is extremely costly and must be taken into account. But we also need in that context to answer the particular questions of toxic effect of this drug. If you sit in a position where decisions that you take would have a serious effect on people, you can't ignore a lot of experience around the world which says this drug has these negative effects.

JOAN SHENTON : Why have you been so outspoken recently about greed and the pharmaceutical companies?

PRESIDENT MBEKI : I think a lot of the discussion that needs to take place about the health and treatment of people does seem to be driven by profit. We've had a long wrangle with the pharmaceutical industry about parallel imports, and what we were saying is we want to make medicines and drugs as affordable as a possible to what is largely a poor population. We need to find these medicines that are properly controlled, properly tested, the general product and no counterfeits.

JOAN SHENTON : In the press you are exhorted to confine yourself to the job to which you were elected, and leave specific subjects to the taking of best available advice.

PRESIDENT MBEKI : I don't imagine Heads of Government would ever be able to say I'm not an economist therefore I can't take decisions on matters of the economy; I'm not a soldier I can't take decisions on matters of defence; I'm not an educationist so I can't take decisions about education. I don't' particularly see why health should be treated as a specialist thing and the President of a country can't take Health decision. I think it would be a dereliction of duty if we were to say as far as health issues are concerned we will leave it to doctors and scientists, or as far as education is concerned we will leave it to educationists and pedagogues. I think the argument is absurd actually.

JOAN SHENTON : How do you feel about the reaction of your country's leading virologists and intellectuals to your position?

PRESIDENT MBEKI : I get a sense that we've all been educated into one school of thought. I'm not surprised at all to find among the overwhelming majority of scientists, are people who would hold one particular view because that's all they're exposed to. This other point of view, which is quite frightening, this alternative view in a sense has been blacked out. It must not be heard, it must not be seen, that's the demand now. Why is Thabo Mbeki talking to discredited scientists, giving them legitimacy. It's very worrying at this time in the world that any point of view should be prohibited, that's banned, there are heretics that should be burned at the stake. And it's all said in the name of science and health. It can't be right.

JOAN SHENTON : Now it has been said that the pharmaceutical industry is more powerful than government. Are you going to take this debate to other world leaders like President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair or the Prime Minister of India who has expressed support for an investigation into these issues, as you are?

PRESIDENT MBEKI : Certainly I want to raise the matter with politicians around the world, at least get them to understand the truth about this issue, not what they might see on television or read in newspapers. And we were very glad to see India get themselves involved in this issue. The concern around probable questions, which in a sense have been hidden, will grow around the world and the matter is critical, the reason we are doing all this is so we can respond correctly to what is reported to be a major catastrophe on the African continent. We have to respond correctly and urgently. And you can't respond correctly by closing your eyes and ears to any scientific view that is produced. A matter that seems to be very clear in terms of the alternative view, is what do you expect to happen in Africa with regard to immune systems, where people are poor, subject to repeat infections and all of that. Surely you would expect their immune systems to collapse.

I have no doubt that is happening. But then to attach such important defence to a virus produces restrictions and what we are disappointed about as an Africa government is that it seems incorrect to respond to this AIDS challenge within a narrow band. If we only said safe sex, use a condom, we won't stop the spread of AIDS in this country.