Mbeki Tells Parliament His Government Has No Immediate Plans to Alter HIV/AIDS Tactics
Speaking before Parliament yesterday, South African President Thabo Mbeki said his government has no immediate plans to alter its existing HIV/AIDS tactics or allocate more funding toward fighting the disease, Reuters/Contra Costa Times reports. "I do not believe that at this particular moment, the government is going to do anything to change the policy positions that is has announced in this regard," Mbeki said in response to questioning by members of Parliament (Boyle Reuters/Contra Costa Times, 10/25). The president appears before Parliament to answer questions once per quarter (South African Press Association, 10/24). Mbeki's announcement comes one week after the official release of a report by the Medical Research Council that cited AIDS as the nation's leading killer. The report also estimated that as many as seven million people could die of AIDS-related causes by 2010 if additional steps are not taken to fight the disease. According to Mbeki, who initially tried to block the release of the report, the results are being reviewed by a government panel and officials "are not considering any reapportionment of funding until this process is complete" (Cohen, Associated Press, 10/24).
Calls For Policy Change
On Monday, the National Council of Provinces' select committee on finance called for a "fundamental" change in the government's HIV/AIDS policy in light of the MRC report's findings. "The strength of the response will not only lie with ensuring that medicines and medical care is being directed to those who have the disease, but becomes more holistic," the NPOC report stated, noting that the "minister of social development and most of the members of provincial executive councils and provinces have raised concerns that the social security system is not tailored for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and careful decisions need to be made for the allocation of funds" (Hartley/Ensor, Johannesburg Business Day, 10/23). According to Tony Leon, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, the government spent only 0.6% of its health budget on HIV/AIDS last year (Associated Press, 10/24). In a statement released ahead of Mbeki's appearance, Leon said it would "require an unambiguous statement on the president's part that AIDS is caused by infection with HIV, followed by the announcement of some decisive policies to indicate that the AIDS epidemic is being taken seriously" (South African Press Association, 10/24). But Mbeki did not back down from his previous statements. He has come under fire for contesting the MRC report, instead citing 1995 World Health Organization figures he found on the Internet that said AIDS was responsible for just 2.2% of deaths in South Africa, and for his refusal to provide antiretroviral drugs through the public health system.
Why No Drugs?
MP Patricia de Lille of the opposition Pan Africanist Congress questioned the government's reasons for refusing to supply AIDS drugs. Mbeki had said that the drugs were "toxic," but de Lille pointed out that they had been approved for use in South Africa and that many lawmakers are taking them. "Why are these drugs only toxic for poor people?" she asked. Mbeki reinforced his position that the drugs are toxic, citing recent U.S. treatment guideline revisions that called for delaying treatment until patients become sick. "The reason was that these drugs had toxicity that had not been foreseen," he said (Associated Press, 10/24). Citing drug resistance and "dangerous" side effects -- such as high cholesterol, kidney failure, liver metabolism alterations and loss of nerve sensations -- the U.S. government in February changed its HIV treatment recommendations, saying that "less ill" patients should postpone such therapy until their viral load count increases and CD4 cell count decreases to meet the new guideline levels (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 2/2).