Thabo Mbeki is not even the only African leader who has promulgated ideas that seemingly militate against the gains made in fighting AIDS.
The United States of America has pledged $410 million to the fight against the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. South Africa has the world’s largest population of people living with HIV with numbers estimated to be north of 6.8 million. Reuters reports the funds will help expand South Africa’s antiretroviral program which provides treatment to more than 3 million patients. United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) reported that in 2015 alone, the country experienced 180,000 AIDS-related deaths in 2015 while its prevalence rate of HIV among adults of 19% is one of the world’s highest. The donation will be made through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). UNAIDS has ambitiously proposed that the AIDS global crisis be eliminated by 2030. Moves to make treatment accessible are impressive when looked at in the context of Thabo Mbeki’s so called “denialist” ideas he propounded in South Africa when he was President. He is not even the only African leader who has promulgated ideas that seemingly militate against the gains made in fighting AIDS. It is almost a competition of who can make the AIDS conversations more ludicrous. Take a look at some of the most popular unconventional ideas about AIDS.
Thabo Mbeki is notorious in modern times for his unusual stance on HIV. In 2000, he called together a round table of experts to discuss the cause of AIDS (most experts were known denialists). At the International Aids conference held in Durban, later that year, he openly said AIDS was caused by poverty, bad nourishment and general ill-health. To him, the solution was therefore not expensive medicine but simply addressing poverty in Africa. A Harvard study reported that Mbeki’s ideas may have cost South Africa 330,000 lives.
The Treatment Action Campaign, one of the most vocal opponents of Mbeki’s policies reprinted a City Press article where President Thabo Mbeki denied knowing about the deaths of public servants to AIDS-related illnesses. He said, “People die from anything…no-one has sounded an alarm where I work daily in the Presidency and nobody has said there is a particularly alarming tendency of people dying.” TAC called out the then President for belittling HIV/AIDS related deaths “to justify his personal denialism”.
Even now, Thabo Mbeki says he stands by every word he said. In his weekly public letter, Mbeki said, “Thirteen years later, today, I would stand by everything said in this excerpt and still ask that the questions posed should be answered by those who have the scientific capacity to do so!” He says his major question pertains to the reason why South Africans are affected by a particular variant of the HI Virus which is unique to the country and mutates at a high frequency rate.
He asks, “Why is this special type of HI Virus confined only to our region of the world? Why is it not spreading to other areas, even within Africa! What happened to the 1985 South African HI Virus which behaved in the same way as the US and West European HI Virus! If it mutated into what it is today, why did it not mutate in the same way in the US and Western Europe!”
The argument therefore quickly gravitates towards a purely scientific terrain which is no longer simply about views and convictions but concrete facts supported by empirical proof. Mbeki’s position is one that says, “A virus cannot cause a syndrome”, and this causes much debate over how the HI Virus ends up causing the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. A syndrome is a collection of well-known diseases and Mbeki says these cannot be caused by one virus. The HI Virus therefore “might be a contributory cause of immune deficiency – the ID in AIDS”.
The answers he asked for have come from such people as scientist Salim Abdool Karim who described Mbeki’s letter as “unscientific drivel”. Karim, the co-director of the Centre for AIDS Research in Africa at the University of KwaZulu Natal said Mbeki is ill-informed and, “The truth is viruses can cause syndromes, and HIV is one that does.”
Whatever the scientific arguments, Anti-Retroviral Treatment has helped Africa’s case against HIV/AIDS and Mbeki was an obstacle to this achievement during his tenure. He had to be compelled by a Constitutional Court judgment to make anti-retroviral treatment readily available to pregnant women in 2002. In the South African National AIDS Council’s words, the debate on whether HIV causes AIDS is “irrelevant” and a “distraction”.
In 2011, Christine Ondoa who was a health minister in Uganda is on record for claiming that she had seen all documentation of three people who were once positive but had tested negative. Activists called her out for her comments, describing them as “careless and misleading”. In 2007, Yahya Jammeh announced that he could treat AIDS. Rumours suggested the treatment was based on seven herbs mentioned in the Koran. Jammeh claimed he had mystic powers and had only received the mandate to treat large numbers of people. The supposed cure could change one’s status within 3 days. Again, activists were not amused. In Swaziland, Timothy Myeni, a Member of Parliament is said to have suggested branding HIV-positive people on the buttocks to prevent the virus from spreading. Yoweri Museveni is remembered for downplaying the effectiveness of condoms at a 2004 international AIDS conference in Bangkok, Thailand. His argument was that they institutionalised mistrust in relationships, could not be used consistently by people like drunkards but the shocker was that they disturbed some African sexual styles. He went on to say people assumed everyone had sex the same way yet there is a big variety.
Some statements that come from honest places of utmost conviction end up undoing the gains made in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Their net effect is to either encourage a false sense of security which affects prevention or incite reluctance to use treatment. Politicians ought to be careful! Their “creative ideas” about HIV/AIDS are sometimes unwarranted and uncalled for. There is need to be politically correct if this war is to be won. South Africa (after Thabo Mbeki) is now leading the way. The hope is that the $410 million goes a long way in controlling the AIDS epidemic.
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