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In South Africa, AIDS Drugs Only for Officials

Wednesday, 01 November 2000 12:00 AM

However, the real scandal erupted when it was disclosed that this same government is using taxpayers' money to fund a parliamentary medical aid scheme (PARMED), which provides AZT to any members of Parliament or ministers who may need it.

"It is hypocritical for the government to do this because it adopted a strong line against the use of AZT," said AIDS Legal Program executive committee member, Mark Heywood.

He questioned if this was the same government that had recently stated that AZT was too expensive and had harmful side effects. South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) coordinator Pholokgolo Ramathwalo described the government's double standards as "startling." "Did they think AZT should be given to them when they said it was expensive?" Ramathwalo questioned.

Furthermore, he warned, "We will not let them treat themselves only at our expense." As a first step in this direction he announced that TAC was planning to picket against the government's double standards regarding access to AZT.

Meanwhile, Dr. Costa Gazi, who had spent more than two decades working in Britain's public health system during South Africa's apartheid years, compared Mbeki's government's refusal to provide anti-retroviral drugs to pregnant women as tantamount to sanctioning "the genocide of babies."

"It's not deliberate genocide, but the effect of what he is doing is precisely that," said Dr. Gazi.

He added that it seems the government would prefer that babies of HIV-positive mothers are born infected with the virus so that they die quickly and relieve the state of the burden of taking care of them after their mothers die.

This medical doctor, already known for privately buying Nevirapine, which he administers to HIV-positive pregnant women, has called on Mbeki to scrap his plan to spend more than 4 billion U.S. dollars on war planes, submarines and other weapons and, instead, to help the 4.2 million HIV-positive people in South Africa.

"The needs of the rest of the country are averted with appeals to mythical African solutions, while members of government enjoy the best treatment the world has to offer," said opposition leader Tony Leon.

He said that if Mbeki would allow the implementation of an AZT program in state hospitals, this would save the lives of 110,000 babies over the next 10 years.

Leon has accused Mbeki and his government of "playing with the lives of South Africans" by casting doubt on the cause of AIDS, while at the same time "he and his fellow members of government enjoyed 'Rolls Royce' AIDS treatments."

"The government is hypocritical," said Bantu Holomisa, president of the United Democratic Movement, who described a denial of access of anti-retroviral drugs to ordinary citizens as "discrimination against the poor."

"I am not a medical doctor like Mbeki seems to be," Holomisa said, "but common sense tells me that if there are cases proving that AZT prevents mother-to-child transmission, then it is government's prerogative to save babies from infection."

However, Health Minister Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang responded in a pragmatic way by claiming, "Parliamentarians played no role in the fact that their medical aid scheme made provision for the prescription of the anti-AIDS drug AZT."

"MPs are members of the medical aid scheme, no different from people who belong to other medical aid schemes," she said in a recent interview in which she described the government's critics as "malicious."

Although the government has repeatedly claimed that AZT has toxic side effects, the health minister finally admitted that this anti-retroviral drug was not available in state hospitals "because we cannot afford it ... That is the truth of the matter."

In a new exchange of increasingly acrimonious letters, Mbeki told Leon, "Possibly we do originate from different planets with radically different value systems."

Mbeki also accused the opposition leader of misleading parliament and collaborating with a drug company – Glaxo Wellcome – "to promote AZT."

He maintains that the manufacturer of AZT was acting unethically by promoting the use of the drug to prevent HIV infection in rape victims, although it was not registered for this purpose.

Leon's response to Mbeki was that turning questions of fact into questions of motive was a "method of propaganda (which) may be a useful means of silencing (or isolating) your critics without responding to their arguments, but (it) is not particularly conducive to rational debate."

Interestingly enough, a South African newspaper published its comments under the following title: "Mbeki is from Mars, Leon is from Venus?"

Mbeki, known for "flirting" with American and other "dissident" AIDS scientists, recently proved to favor foreign conspiracy theories. He accused the U.S., its Central Intelligence Agency and multinational drug companies of conspiring to impose the view that HIV causes AIDS.

Mbeki insisted that his questioning the link between HIV and AIDS was harming the interests of big pharmaceutical companies and said that criticism of his AIDS viewpoint was "a foretaste of foreign attempts to undermine his government."

He added that a promotion of the idea that he was "deranged" was part of this campaign orchestrated in the West.

The South African president also accused the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) of being on the payroll of multinational drug companies because of its insistence that the government in Pretoria should provide anti-retroviral drugs to all HIV-positive patients.

TAC leader Zackie Achmat, who is said to be refusing anti- retroviral drugs that could save his life until they are made available to all South Africans, challenged Mbeki "to provide any shred of evidence to back up his claims."

Mbeki is not alone in his fondness of foreign conspiracy theories. Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang recently had to face the firing squad after it was discovered that her ministry had distributed copies of a chapter of William Cooper's book, "Behold, a Pale Horse," which claims that the "Illuminati" – "a highly secretive international organization" – introduced AIDS to Africa in 1978 through the smallpox vaccine in an attempt to reduce the African population.

However, former President Nelson Mandela told local media that he favored the "dominant opinion that prevails throughout the world" that HIV is the cause of AIDS. He added that he would be persuaded otherwise only if new scientific research showed "conclusively that that view is wrong."

Mandela advised Mbeki, "I would like to be careful because for people in our position, when you take a stand, you might find that established principles are undermined, sometimes without scientific backing."

Another sharp rebuke to Mbeki came from the South African Anglican Church Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, who said, "We believe that history will measure this country's slow response to the pandemic in human, not statistical terms, and that the inherent injustices will be judged as serious a crime against humanity as apartheid."

Ndungane feels that: "What is becoming increasingly clear is the futility of looking to government for a solution. At the very least, we need to apply pressure on our political leaders to change this situation. ..."

Instead of listening to this well-intentioned advice, Mbeki stated that a report by his presidential council, which also included many AIDS "dissident" scientists, would be made public by the end of this year.

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However, the real scandal erupted when it was disclosed that this same government is using taxpayers' money to fund a parliamentary medical aid scheme (PARMED), which provides AZT to any members of Parliament or ministers who may need it. It is hypocritical for...
Wednesday, 01 November 2000 12:00 AM
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