Death of Mbeki Aide Refuels HIV Debate in South Africa
With the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of South African President Thabo's Mbeki's 36-year-old spokesperson Parks Mankahlana -- who many suspect died last Thursday from an AIDS-related disease -- still looming, scientists and opposition politicians have "seized the moment" to argue that the nation's top officials should "speak openly" about AIDS and end their "denial" about the disease, the Boston Globe reports. Mbeki, however, who has denied the causal link between HIV and AIDS, refused to comment on the cause of Mankahlana's death. "The silence is incomprehensible. If Parks had the courage to admit he was dying of AIDS, if Mbeki had the courage to say Parks died of AIDS, it would have enormous symbolic importance. Do we have to wait until a dozen high-profile people die before we talk about it?" Johannesburg epidemiologist Brian Williams asked. In the aftermath of Mankahlana's death, however, Mbeki's critics remain "disheartened." Sandy Kalian, an opposition Democratic Alliance policy adviser, said, "If more public figures would come out with their status, they would do more to destigmatize the epidemic." The Sunday Independent, a South African newspaper, argued, "We have to ask ourselves whether party and political interests are being protected by this obfuscation and confusion. Mankahlana could become our own Magic Johnson. ... (His) death could be the watershed that marks the start of our own liberation." According to Business Day, another South African newspaper, "We owe it to our compatriots to be honest" (Shillinger, Boston Globe, 10/31). Some critics contend that at least three members of the South African government have contracted HIV (Daily Telegraph, 10/31). During the past year, Mankahlana played a pivotal role in "defending" Mbeki's "controversial" stance on AIDS, leading the Sunday Independent to lament, "Bitterly and ironically, it was during this period of the HIV/AIDS debate that rumors surfaced that Mankahlana himself was HIV-positive." He became "combative and irritable" during that time, and "it became clear that something was not right." Asked to explain Mbeki's AIDS policies, Mankahlana often became "angry and curiously defensive," accusing reporters of "pandering to Western pharmaceutical companies" by questioning Mbeki's refusal to allow HIV-positive pregnant women to receive antiretroviral drugs to block vertical HIV transmission. He also became "thinner and frailer" before taking an "unexplained" leave of absence three months ago. Last Monday, Mbeki visited Mankahlana at his bedside and emerged "deeply shocked," according to a senior official. While Mbeki vowed to "urgently find a way of intervening at the medical level," he showed "no signs of emotion" and did not "stray from his AIDS script" during a meeting with foreign correspondents, the Globe reports (Boston Globe, 10/31).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.