By Patrick Bulger and Jeremy Gordin

Sunday Independent (South Africa) 1 July 2001

President Thabo Mbeki has been drawn into a new HIV/AIDS controversy involving his dissenting views on the disease. Mbeki has been cited in support of a R1 million damages claim a widow is bringing against Glaxo Wellcome SA, the South African subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline, the British drugs giant.

In court papers served on the company, Annet Hayman of Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, claimed that her late husband, James, died after taking AZT, the anti-retroviral drug, which the government has refused to hand out to rape victims because of its known toxicity, a danger that Mbeki has emphasised.

She is claiming more than R1-million in damages. Glaxo Wellcome has said it will defend the claim.

James Hayman saw a doctor because he was always tired and was diagnosed as HIV-positive. He died in June 1998. His lawyers argue, however, that his HIV-positive status did not mean he had AIDS, and that he was suffering from a non-terminal form of anaemia.

Mbeki and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the minister of health, have been cited as "interested parties" and served with the court papers, "as a courtesy", according to lawyers acting for Annet Hayman.

The matter is being followed closely by adherents to the so-called "dissident view" of HIV and AIDS. They have long argued against drugs-based treatment of the pandemic, largely because of toxicity concerns and because they do not accept that HIV alone is the cause of AIDS.

Because Mbeki has been named in the case - which the lawyers are considering launching in the United States as well - his views on the matter will once again be aired in public, with the prospect of his name and office being tied to what could potentially open a floodgate of claims against the drugs industry.

Mbeki first made a claim about AZT's alleged toxicity in October 1998 when he told parliament that there is "a large volume of scientific evidence that AZT is harmful to health", a statement that Hayman's lawyers said is among many Mbeki has made that support their claim.

Attorney Richard Stretch, a member of Hayman's legal team, said Mbeki had been cited because of his statements about the toxicity of AZT.

The president was at liberty to have his own legal counsel to present his interests if he thought they were at stake, said Stretch. He was also free to appear in court himself. Stretch said Mbeki had been included in the plea because it was felt this would help the plaintiff's case.

Mbeki's office was not available for comment.

The lawyers argued that at the time of his death, James Hayman, an attorney in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, was taking AZT manufactured by Glaxo Wellcome.

"Towards the end of July 1997 and in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, the deceased commenced a month's course of AZT, together with a related drug, 3TC, at daily oral doses of 600mg and 300mg respectively, which had been prescribed to him following an HIV-positive diagnosis based on reactive antibody tests for HIV, and a low CD4+ cell count," according to the particulars of the claim.

"When he commenced treatment with AZT, the deceased weighed 68kg, was not sick and presented with no symptoms of any illness.

"The AZT treatment immediately made the deceased very ill, causing intractable diarrhoea and vomiting, intense headache, profound lassitude, anaemia, muscle weakness with cramps and pain, and progressive weight loss."

Because of the side-effects, Hayman lowered the dose he was taking and so extended the month's course over about two months.

"The deceased declined a second course of AZT, but he progressively declined physically and became bedridden, unable to retain food, incontinent, prone to bouts of extended vomiting, and unable to feed himself, bathe himself, walk without assistance, pick himself up when he fell, and speak without slurring.

"The deceased was subsequently hospitalised on three occasions for uncontrollable diarrhoea and vomiting without any specific infectious aetiological agent being detected on pathological investigation, continued to suffer profound fatigue, continued to suffer muscular weakness and deterioration, and lose muscle mass and body weight, and finally died on 8 June 1998 weighing 42kg.

"The deceased died as a direct result of the cellular toxicity of AZT."

Meanwhile, Mbeki's views on AIDS - and his absence from a top-level United Nations summit on AIDS in New York during the same week that he was in the United States - cast a long shadow over the visit, reports our Foreign Service.

Mbeki was asked at the Washington National Press Club if he thought HIV caused AIDS. His reply - "That's what the scientists say, (but) I don't know" - only added to US media criticism of his stance on AIDS.

Said the New York Times: "Mbeki has been justly pilloried, both at home and abroad, for his failure to face up squarely to AIDS."

At the conference, the final declaration, which took two months to write, said that "poverty, underdevelopment and illiteracy are among the principal contributing factors to the spread of HIV and AIDS", which is "compounding poverty and now reversing or impeding development in many countries".

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, said: "The debate has begun and it's not going to go away.

"We have set standards against which people can measure their own performance, that the average citizen can use to challenge their government."