Aids activists accuse Mbeki as death toll jumps by 57 per cent

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The Independent Online

Despairing Aids activists have accused the South African government of failing to deal with the soaring HIV epidemic, after a report indicated that the number of premature deaths in the country, many of them Aids-related, rose by 57 per cent over five years. Most of the deaths between 1997 and 2002 were attributed to tuberculosis, influenza and pneumonia, illnesses caught frequently by Aids patients.

Despairing Aids activists have accused the South African government of failing to deal with the soaring HIV epidemic, after a report indicated that the number of premature deaths in the country, many of them Aids-related, rose by 57 per cent over five years. Most of the deaths between 1997 and 2002 were attributed to tuberculosis, influenza and pneumonia, illnesses caught frequently by Aids patients.

Pali Lehohla, head of the government-run Statistics South Africa, which produced the report, said: "The numbers provide indirect evidence that the HIV epidemic in South Africa is raising the mortality levels of prime-aged adults, in that associated diseases are on the increase." He added that the number of deaths of those aged 29 to 40 was increasing, a strong indicator of rising Aids-related mortality.

Aids lobby groups have seized on the figures to attack the government's failure to come even close to meeting its own targets for the treatment of HIV sufferers.

The Treatment Action Campaign Group (TAC) forced the Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to admit that the government had managed to treat only between 28,000 and 31,000 Aids patients with anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), far short of its target of treating 53,000 people by March.

The TAC said if South Africa was to make headway in the battle against Aids, 200,000 people must be treated with ARVs in the public sector by the beginning of 2006, and at least 10 per cent of them must be children.

President Thabo Mbkei has blamed medical staff shortages and problems with supplies for the delays, but the TAC said Mr Mbeki lacked the commitment to implement an effective plan. For years, he questioned the link between HIV and Aids, claimed many Aids drugs were unsafe and refused to provide ARVs to prevent mother-to-child transmission. This year, his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, announced that his only surviving son had died of Aids

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the opposition party Inkatha Freedom Party, who lost two children to Aids, said: "It is as if he [Mr Mbeki] lives in a different South Africa from the millions of people suffering and dying from HIV/Aids."

The medical profession lost faith in Statistics South Africa in 2002, when it estimated that only 8.7 per cent of deaths in the country were caused by HIV/Aids. Doctors said many Aids-related deaths were classified as being caused by related illnesses.

The South African Medical Research Council said many doctors were reluctant to certify deaths as HIV because families might struggle to claim on life insurance or funeral policies. South Africa has one of the highest incidences of Aids in the world. The government has now softened its stance on treatments, but conservative estimates indicate that about 5.3 million of South Africa's 45 million people are infected.

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