S.Africa's Mbeki says investigating AZT safety

Reuters 28 Oct. 1999

CAPE TOWN - South African President Thabo Mbeki, under pressure to supply the anti-AIDS drug AZT to thousands of rape victims in the country, said on Thursday his government was investigating whether the drug was safe to use.

"There...exists a large volume of scientific literature alleging, among other things, the toxicity of this drug is such that it is in fact a danger to health,'' he told parliament's second chamber, the National Council of the Provinces.

"I have therefore asked the Minister of go into all these matters so that...we ourselves, including our country's medical authorities, are certain of where the truth lies,'' he added.

Mbeki also said there were legal cases pending against the drug, supposed to halve mother-to-foetus transmission of HIV that precedes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as well as retarding the development of the disease.

It is also credited with reducing the chances of infection following rape which has reached crisis proportions in South Africa, with one reported on average every 12 minutes.

"One rape is a rape too many,'' Mbeki said. "Through our concerted action, we must make this clear to all who carry out this terrible crime.''

Deputy President Jacob Zuma said on Wednesday the South African Law Commission was studying the human rights implications and feasibility of chemically castrating repeat rapists.

The government has been under pressure for some time to provide AZT free of charge and automatically to rape victims in a country where one in eight of the adult population is infected with the disease.

However, to date it has refused to do so on the grounds of the crushing cost burden this would place on the state's already overstretched budget.

Mbeki's reference to medical doubts about the efficacy of the drug represented the opening of a new front in the government's defence of its position.