SAPA 10 July 2000

Durban -- An irritated Manto Tshabalala-Msimang on Monday said South Africa was a proud nation that would devise its own health policies and would not bend to pressure to conform to the expectations of the industrialised world.

The Health Minister appeared to vent her frustration at criticism of the government's HIV/AIDS policies when she addressed a media briefing at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban.

"It's not that we don't care (about AIDS), but the international community put pressure on us and very few support us in getting on with our business of transformation," she said.

Defending Mbeki

Tshabalala-Msimang strongly defended President Thabo Mbeki, who has been widely criticised for his interest in the debate between "revisionist" AIDS theorists who question whether the HI virus causes AIDS and scientists who hold more conventional views on the disease.

Many orthodox scientists had hoped Mbeki would withdraw his defence of the so-called "dissident" scientists when he officially opened the conference on Sunday night.

Mbeki, however, called on all parties to tolerate opposing viewpoints.

"The president of this country has never denied either the existence of AIDS nor this causal connection between HIV and AIDS," Tshabalala-Msimang said.

"Why should he deny something he has not said? The media should turn it around and report correctly."

The issues surrounding the HIV/AIDS debate were complex and multi-faceted, she said.

When questioned about the government's reported unavailability to meet with pharmaceutical companies to negotiate deals to buy cheaper drugs, Tshabalala-Msimang said: "To say we are unavailable to them ... I dismiss that outright."

She singled out the US-based drug manufacturer Pfizer as one of the drug companies which had made offers to provide drugs to HIV sufferers at a reduced cost, without consulting the government.

She said she heard media reports that the company would provide Fluconozole to AIDS sufferers who had contracted cryptococcal meningitis.

"I was not informed about this. I did not even know the terms of the offer.

"Up to today I have not heard from them. Tell me who is unavailable," Tshabalala-Msimang said.

Criticising Cameron

She also criticised Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron.

At the conference earlier on Monday, Cameron expressed disappointment at Mbeki's support for the dissident theorists, as well as the government's policy not to provide AZT to pregnant HIV positive women.

"The previous regime did not feature in his (Cameron's) address," she said.

Tshabalala-Msimang said that Cameron had failed to acknowledge that the apartheid government had put few structures in place to fight AIDS and the African National Congress had to establish such infrastructure from scratch.

"This had never been done before."

The youth of South Africa had also subsequently been mobilised to fight AIDS on a large scale, the minister said.

Commitment to combating AIDS

She emphasised the government's commitment to fighting AIDS, reiterating that prevention and awareness were its primary goals over the next five years.

Tshabalala-Msimang, who chairs the health sector of the Southern African Development Community, told another briefing with four other SADC ministers, that SADC would develop a drugs package which could be negotiated with multinational pharmaceutical companies to suit the specific needs of SADC member nations.

"This package will not focus only on the provision of anti-retroviral drugs, but will address the issue of HIV-related interventions in a holistic way ... including laboratory support, treatment of opportunistic infections, infrastructure and capacity building."

The SADC statement was in response to the recent announcement by the five drug manufacturers that they were willing to explore ways to reduce the cost of the drugs needed to treat AIDS-related illnesses.