Mbeki Defends South Africa’s AIDS Policy, Refuses to Declare AIDS National Emergency
Only hours after University of Witwatersrand Health Sciences Department faculty members called on the government to declare AIDS a national emergency and offer antiretroviral drugs to all rape victims and pregnant women, South African President Thabo Mbeki defended the nation's AIDS policy, saying that AIDS could "not be considered an emergency," USA Today reports (Singer, USA Today, 11/30). The professors told the government, "We cannot afford to be overwhelmed into a state of nonaction and must respond to this crisis with energetic national commitment, even in the face of competing budgetary priorities," to which Mbeki responded, "We have a policy. We have a program. I don't think there is any reason to change that policy or program." (Murphy, Baltimore Sun, 11/30). The faculty members' call to action comes as the Treatment Action Campaign, along with the Children's Rights Center and Haroon Saloojee, a physician from the University of Witwatersrand, began a court case on Monday against the South African National Department of Health and eight of nine provincial health ministers. The suit alleges that government health officials are "violating [AIDS] sufferers' constitutional right to life and health care" by not providing the antiretroviral drug nevirapine to the nation's pregnant women to reduce the risk of vertical transmission (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/21). According to the Baltimore Sun, South Africa's government insists that "the drug is too expensive and may be toxic" and is running a two-year pilot program to "test the drug's effectiveness rather than make it widely available." Mbeki said, "There are all sorts of questions. Let's have a look at whether we have the capacity to dispense it in the public health system" (Baltimore Sun, 11/30). Mbeki added that women who are unable to afford formula for their children "would pass the disease on to their babies whether or not they were given" the drug, as HIV can be transmitted through breastfeeding (USA Today, 11/30).
GlaxoSmithKline Cutting Price of Drugs
Mbeki's reaffirmation that the government will not change its AIDS policy came amid an announcement from drug maker GlaxoSmithKline that it will cut 20% off the price of two "key" antiretrovirals in South Africa beginning in 2002, Reuters reports. The company said it will discount lamivudine and the combination lamivudine/zidovudine treatment Combivir. Reuters reports that a month's supply of Combivir would cost $77.22, down from $97.51. The price cut is targeted at the private sector and is aimed at "those who could benefit from lower prices under existing medical schemes." Reuters reports, however, that any company's discounted drugs will still remain "beyond the reach of most African governments and people in the world's poorest continent" (Reuters, 11/30).
By "denying needy moms-to-be" access to the drug nevirapine, Mbeki is "play[ing] God," an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial states. With almost 25% of all pregnant women in the country testing HIV-positive, and 70,000 infants born HIV-positive annually, the editorial says that Mbeki is "a simple moron for the games he's willing to play with people's lives. AIDS is now the leading cause of death for South Africa's adults, and yet Emperor Mbeki still refuses to set aside his fiddle." The editorial adds that nevirapine has "been proved effective" and by choosing not to administer the drug "as widely as possible, Mbeki and his administration ensure a painful, lingering death for thousands of babies." The editorial concludes, "Forcing AIDS patients into court to beg for free, available, effective medication is beyond immoral" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 11/30).