Anew dimension has been added
to the debate on AIDS, a disease that has wreaked havoc in Sub-Saharan
Africa killing 2.2 million people, including adults and children, during
1999. Addressing an international AIDS conference in Durban on 9 July, South
African President, Thabo Mbeki, told thousands of health experts of his
premise that extreme poverty is the continent’s biggest killer and that the
effectiveness of AIDS drugs is questionable.
"We remain convinced of the need for us to better understand the essence
of what would constitute a comprehensive response in a context such as ours
which is characterised by the high levels of poverty and disease," said
The South African president stirred heated debate among the medical
fraternity when in April he wrote to world leaders explaining his position on
antiretroviral drugs, such as AZT.
Antiretroviral drugs are capable of hindering the onset of AIDS and
interrupting transmission, however they are not likely to inhibit viral production completely and the disease may develop
sooner or later. Mbeki has questioned whether the medicines and treatment for HIV/AIDS often used in Western countries
to combat a different strain of AIDS, could effectively treat African strains as
According to Mbeki, "it is obvious that whatever lessons
we have to
may draw from the West about the grave issue of HIV/AIDS, a simple superimposition
of Western experience on African reality would be absurd and
He called upon governments,
scientists, NGOs, and civil society in Africa to work collaboratively to accelerate
responses to specific African challenges, since the attempts according to
western standards to combat AIDS in this continent have so far failed to slow the
increasing spread of the pandemic.
The most recent United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
(UNAIDS) report shows that in Sub-Saharan Africa the number of new infections
was four million during last year. Several SADC countries have double-digit HIV
prevalence rates and some whose prevalence has doubled in the past two
years. The report shows Botswana’s HIV rate estimated at 35.8 percent
among adults (15-49), followed by Swaziland at 25.5 percent and Zimbabwe at
According to an American marketing research agency, Africa represents
only one percent of world drug sales, while North America, Japan and
Western Europe represent 80 percent. Africa is not seen as a viable market.
Five major pharmaceutical companies and the World Health Organisation
(WHO) recently announced an agreement to reduce prices on
AIDS drugs to
Africa by as much as 80 percent. How-ever, it is not enough, since these
drugs customers, as well as to health ministries’ budgets. In addition, these drugs
are only part of a comprehensive treatment programme for HIV/AIDS, which
does not cure the disease, but only keeps it under control.
In May, Mbeki set up an AIDS inter-national
commission of experts to discuss AIDS issues that, beyond the obvious threat to health, have had a
negative impact on the economy and society of SADC countries. Among the
international experts included are scientists, mainly from the US, who reject
the conventional idea that the HIV causes AIDS. These scientists assert
that AIDS is due to under-development, poverty, malnutrition, poor hygiene
and local diseases.
The commission, together with the letter to world leaders
on AIDS in Africa and Mbeki’s incisive beliefs, has sparked substantial controversy. It has
been criticised for focusing on whether HIV causes AIDS or not.
In response, 5,000 doctors and scientist signed a declaration refuting what
they see as theories from “dissidents” on the cause of AIDS. “Persons who are
malnourished, who already suffer other infections or who are older, tend to be
more susceptible to the rapid development of AIDS following HIV infection.
However, none of these factors weaken the scientific evidence that HIV is
the sole cause of AIDS.”