SA faces row over Aids drug policy

Pressure mounted last week for the resignation or axing of Health minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang, after she sanctioned South Africa’s massively criticised display at the Aids conference, held annually to showcase developments in countering the spread of the epidemic.

South Africa’s stand at the conference was decorated with beetroot, garlic and lemons, in an apparent display of the country’s stance on how to prevent the spread of the Aids scourge.

However the display was not well received by some delegates to the conference, who included members of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and United Nations special envoy to Africa Stephen Lewis.

The TAC members vandalised the stand, which they said was an embarrassment to the country and symbolised the government’s aversion to providing ‘proper treatment’ to people infected with HIV and Aids. They said the government needed to focus more on developing its anti-retroviral roll-out programme, instead of pursuing nutrition-based programmes that would have a minimal impact in countering the spread of the epidemic.

Tshabalala-Msimang has persistently advocated nutritional and traditional treatment methods for HIV and Aids to complement ARVs, a stance that has not been well taken by international Aids workers.

Civic organisations working in HIV/Aids have argued that the government’s position could encourage a perception that nutrition and traditional medicines work as a substitute for ARVs and not that they complement them.

The Aids workers say the minister’s sentiments could result in people delaying in seeking the urgent medical treatment that could save their lives.

A recent University of Stellenbosch study found that the use of some traditional medicines such as the African potato could worsen the plight of people being treated with ARVs.

Questioned about the study’s findings, Tshabalala-Msimang insisted that HIV-positive people who used African potato had shown an improvement and had said so. “When a person says she or he is feeling better, I must say no, I don’t think you are feeling better. I must rather go and do science on you?” she asked.

A report released at the Toronto conference highlighted the success of ARV therapy, despite side effects that have hindered their widespread use. According to the report, preliminary research results have indicated that people who have been successfully on conventional ARV therapy and no-longer have the HI virus in their blood would be able to move on to single drug treatment, which is less damaging to the human immune system due to lower side effects.

UN envoy Stephen Lewis also blasted South Africa’s stance. He said South Africa would “never achieve redemption” for its HIV/Aids policies as 600 to 800 people a day die of Aids in the country.

Lewis said what the government is doing is “wrong, immoral and indefensible” and accused the government of spreading HIV/Aids theories “more worthy of a lunatic fringe than a concerned and compassionate state”.

The government’s situation has been considerably worsened by the death of an HIV infected prisoner who had been lobbying the state to provide anti-retroviral treatment to prisoners.

The prisoner, who died on August 6 and was known as prisoner MSM, was incarcerated at Durban’s Westville Prison and was part of a group of 15 inmates who were lobbying for better treatment through the high court. The inmates accused government of dragging its feet in providing them with treatment, despite a High Court order for the state to provide treatment.

Another court ruling issued last week said conditions for HIV positive prisoners at Westville had worsened since their battle with the government began in October last year.

TAC spokesperson Ralph Berold told the Mail and Guardian recently that conditions at the prison’s clinic were “shocking”. “One prisoner has died already and nine are bedridden and in desperate need of medical attention. There is a shortage of basic resources and drugs, such as Fluconazole, which is used to treat oral thrush,” he reportedly said.

Statistics show that death rates in South African prisons have increased by 500 percent over the past 10 years, while deaths from “natural causes” have increased by 30 percent in the past three years.

HIV/Aids is believed to be one of the major causes of the deaths.

The World Health Organisation says anti-retroviral therapy in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by an estimated 1000 percent in the past three years, though only a quarter of the people in the world who need them, will be able to obtain the drugs.

A SADC report issued three weeks ago said multiple concurrent sexual partners were one of the major causes of the epidemic in the region, as people did not use condoms. The grouping urged people to be faithful to single partners in an effort to prevent the epidemic.

September 2006
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