South African Finance Minister Says AIDS Drugs Do Nothing to Limit Spread of Virus; Activists Denounce Remarks
Speaking at the unveiling of a 1996 South African census report on youth, South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel said antiretroviral drugs have not limited the spread of HIV "in any way" and could actually be causing several other diseases, the South African Press Association reports. "What antiretrovirals don't do is to change the status of somebody. Nor do the antiretrovirals on their own change the conduct of an individual who may be exceedingly promiscuous," Manuel said, adding that the country needs an "educated population" more than anything. His remarks came in response to a question about whether the census data revealed anything about the effect of HIV/AIDS on South Africa's youth. He replied that there was "no way" to ascertain accurate information on that question from the survey (South African Press Association, 12/3).
Reaction From the Opposition
Mark Heywood, national secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, an AIDS advocacy group that has taken the South African government to court in an attempt to force the public health system to provide antiretrovirals to pregnant women to prevent vertical HIV transmission, responded "angrily" to Manuel's comments yesterday. "A discussion of antiretrovirals in a country with 200,000 people dying a year is hardly misplaced unless you attach no worth to those lives," Heywood said, adding that the drugs were the "best medicine" for people with HIV/AIDS. "Just as [Manuel] would expect people to familiarize themselves with economics before they make interventions in that sphere, he ought to familiarize himself with the science of antiretrovirals, because there is a strong body of evidence that the reduction of viral load does reduce transmissibility and therefore has prevention benefits," Heywood explained, saying that by not providing treatment, the government was taking away a major incentive for people to get tested. Without the hope of treatment, people will continue "behaving in a way that put[s] themselves and others at risk," he said. Sandy Kalyan, social development spokesperson for the opposition Democratic Alliance, called Manuel's remarks "highly misleading" but conceded that greater "educational intervention" is needed. "Mr. Manuel's comments do nothing to contact the atmosphere of fear and denial of AIDS that is so pervasive in South Africa. Like most other members of government, he seems more intent on throwing out problems than solutions," she added (South African Press Association, 12/4).