On the proposed establishment of an Expert Advisory Panel on HIV/AIDS

By the Minister of Health, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang

2 March 2000

1. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is the most serious health challenge facing South Africa and the region.

2. Given the social, cultural, historical and economic circumstances of South Africa, a successful intervention strategy is likely to be different to the experiences of other countries in the world.

3. The Department is therfore exploring the appointment of approximately 30 local and international experts who will be asked to augment the Department's HIV/AIDS Strategic Plan.

4. The panellists, who will hopefully be representative of the wide range of views on the HIV/AIDS issue, will be encouraged to explore all aspects of the challenge of developing prevention and treatment strategies that are appropriate to the African reality.

5. The Department is currently canvassing a number of experts to determine if they are prepared to participate in the project. Suggestions for candidate participants are welcome.

6. It is intended that the participating specialists will meet in South Africa as soon as possible to agree their terms of reference in consultation with the Department.

7. They will then be encouraged to publish their views over six to eight weeks. These will be available on the internet.

8. The panel will then meet again to try and trash out a consensus recommendation to the Department.

9. Some of the issues that the panel will be encouraged to review include:

  • Treatment of HIV/AIDS and opportunistic infections;
  • General prevention of the disease;
  • Prevention of mother-to-child infections;
  • Prevention of HIV infection following rape or "needle stick" injuries;
  • Local evidence regarding the causes and diagnosis of AIDS and opportunistic infections.

10. The Department is mindful of the complexity and sensitivity of the HIV/AIDS issue. We are totally committed to developing a response strategy that is effective, appropriate and supported by the majority of South Africans.

11. We are taking urgent action based on the best available scientific evidence and suited to our unique health and welfare circumstances in South Africa. There are no simplistic or easy answers and the Department will therefore keep an open mind on the debate surrounding HIV/AIDS.

12. The awful reality, however, is that no matter how successful we are in combatting HIV/AIDS, our responses will always be "too little and too late" for those who have been infected or are affected.

The following are some of the questions that have ben posed to the Department recently by various stakeholders. I am including my responses in an attempt to clarify our position:

Does the establishment of this panel and the possible inclusion of so-called "dissidents" mean that you still have doubts about the existence of AIDS?

Of course not. The dreadful statistics on HIV and AID speak for themselves. There is a clearly established body of scientific evidences that guides our strategies. But we would be foolish to exclude anybody from the debate.

Will "AIDS dissident" Professor Peter Duesberg be a panel member?

My Department is talking to a wide range of specialists to see who is willing and available to participate. In many ways, the panel will be self-selecting because the panellists themselves will influence its final composition. My personal view is that those with more extreme views are unlikely to participate because we are looking for a consensus view.

What is the main reason for the establishment of the panel

Of course, we would expect them to relook at the latest scientific and medical evidence but our primary objectives is to get their recommendation on an intervention strategy that is appropriate for Africa.

Why have you not consulted more widely on the idea?

We were caught unawares by the media attention, which was triggered by early contact with some of the prospective panellist. Public interest and wider consultation is welcome.

Does this mean you will revisit your refusal to supply anti retro-viral drugs to pregnant women?

That decision was taken in the light of the best available evidence and the special social and economic circumstances of our country. I still think it is the right decision. But if the expert panel came to another conclusion, I would give it serious consideration. We would, however, require an ingenious solution to the funding challenges.

Will the National Aids Council have a say in the appointment of the panel?

Their input will be most welcome.

Will the panel be given the freedom to come to its own conclusions?

I can't imagine that top scientists will accept anything else. Our Department will of course debate with them the terms of reference. We will emphasize that we are looking for practical solutions that take into account the African reality. In the final analysis, the South African Government will have to consider their recommendations and make a final decision.

Are you unhappy with the spin that the media has put on your announcement - i.e. that it is an attempt to justify withholding treatment for pregnant women with HIV?

This interpretation is quite incorrect. I hope that the work of the panel will demonstrate that we have no hidden agendas. Our sole objective is to get the best practical solution for combatting and treating HIV and AIDS in this country.