MBEKI TRIES TO PUTS AIDS CONTROVERSY BEHIND HIM
By Sue Pleming
Reuters 24 May 2000
Washington -- Trying once and for all to end controversy over his
views on AIDS, South African President Thabo Mbeki said on Tuesday his past
comments had been misinterpreted and that he had never questioned the link
between HIV and AIDS.
But Mbeki was quick to stress that the world's focus should not only be on
the AIDS epidemic sweeping across Africa and that the mosquito-borne
disease malaria deserved equal treatment.
Reports that Mbeki questioned whether HIV causes AIDS--the view of most
scientists--and his decision not to give pregnant women the antiviral drug
AZT, has clouded the South African president's first state visit to the
"Clearly there has been some misunderstanding of what we have said...We
have never said there is no connection between HIV and AIDS. I don't know
where that report came from,'' Mbeki told reporters after receiving an
honorary degree at Howard University in Washington.
AIDS activists say Mbeki's government has been slow to respond to the AIDS
epidemic in his country where one in 10 South Africans, or about 4.2
million people, are infected with HIV, the human immune-deficiency virus.
They are also outraged by the inclusion on a presidential panel of three US
researchers who contend AIDS is not always caused by HIV and that
conventional drugs may be ineffective.
Mbeki, who discussed the AIDS issue with President Bill Clinton on Monday,
said questions remained over the use of antiviral drugs such as AZT for
pregnant women with AIDS.
Even with recently announced price reductions for drugs by five large
pharmaceutical companies, prescribing AZT to all pregnant women with HIV
would take up his country's entire health budget, he said. "We would not
even be able to afford an aspirin,'' he said, adding that South Africa's
medical infrastructure was not sufficient to monitor the use of AZT, which
can be toxic.
Clinton said Monday he hoped South Africa would be helped by the decision
earlier this month by five big drug makers to cut prices for AIDS drugs in
Africa, and by his executive order that effectively gives African countries
more leeway to pursue cheaper, generic versions of patented anti-AIDS drugs.
South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former health
minister, said she did not believe prescribing AZT was an efficient use of
her government's resources. It was also not clear, she said, whether
prescribing vitamins and supplementing a mother's diet would have the same
effect as using AZT. "There is a lot of scientific work that still needs
to be done, despite the fact that it would cost so much without a very good
result in the end.''
Mbeki said one of the biggest killers in Africa was malaria, but no one
wanted to talk about this issue and instead focused solely on AIDS. "I
think we have to deal with this AIDS issue as effectively as possible, and
so on, but I think that it would be incorrect for us as Africans to just
focus on this and leave these other major issues- malaria, tuberculosis,''
The emergence of HIV/AIDS since the 1980s as an epidemic across Africa has
overshadowed the fight against malaria, which affects over 400 million
people each year and causes a million deaths. Most of those deaths are
Mbeki said he could understand that malaria was not a serious problem in
the United States and so this might be difficult for people to understand.
"No one asks and no one wants to come in and say, 'What can we do to
assist with dealing with malaria' because of this exclusive focus. It's an
important focus but it must not mean we should close our eyes to other
realities,'' Mbeki said.