By Brendan Boyle

Reuters 24 Oct. 2001

Cape Town -- President Thabo Mbeki said Wednesday his government would not alter its approach to the HIV /AIDS pandemic sweeping South Africa until it had assessed new data on the disease and gathered additional information.

"I do not believe that at this particular moment the government is going to do anything to change the policy position that it has announced in this regard,'' Mbeki said in response to questions in parliament.

Mbeki has been criticized at home and abroad for his reluctance to acknowledge a direct link between HIV and AIDS or that the disease constitutes an emergency in South Africa.

South Africa is estimated to have more people with HIV-AIDS than any other country in the world, with close to 5 million people--or one in nine of the population--being HIV-positive, according to UN estimates.

Mbeki has also blocked the use of key antiretroviral drugs in the public health system, including those that can reduce the risk of mothers passing on the disease to their newborns, on cost and safety grounds.

This is despite top drug firms offering some of these drugs--which can prolong the life of those who are HIV-positive--at prices lower than those in the private sector.

Protests After Report Blocked

In a recent television interview, Mbeki stunned the scientific community by claiming that accidents and violence killed more people than AIDS.

The state-appointed Medical Research Council said in a study released last week that AIDS would account for a third of all deaths this year and that without government intervention and a change in sexual behavior, it would kill between 5 million and 7 million people by 2010.

The report said about 195,000 people would die of AIDS-related diseases this year, compared to 65,000 to 80,000 deaths as a result of accidents and violence.

Mbeki initially blocked publication of the report, but sanctioned its release after a storm of protest from churches, labor unions and AIDS activists.

On Wednesday, he said the report had been submitted for review to a panel including ministers, the government statistics office and scientists.

"We are not considering any reapportionment of funding until that social cluster of ministers and these other processes are concluded. We will then decide how to proceed with regard to this matter,'' Mbeki said.

Opposition leader Tony Leon said the treatment of AIDS accounted for only 0.6% of total national spending on health. But Mbeki responded saying his government needed more data on causes of death.