Mbeki admits he had a 'communications problem' over policy on Aids

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President Thabo Mbeki has conceded that the South African government has had a "communications problem" with its Aids policy, after an abrupt U-turn that will result in the widespread distribution of crucial drugs.

After a cabinet meeting last week that resulted in a change of policy on Aids, Mr Mbeki said he recognised that "perhaps there is a problem of communication by government". He added: "And it is critically important – sitting in the position where I sit – that I communicate correct messages."

Mr Mbeki had long insisted that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was not the only cause of fully fledged Aids, and said anti-retroviral drugs were unproven and too toxic to distribute.

Last week the Cabinet lifted a ban on the treatment of rape victims with anti- retroviral drugs, and decided to extend the treatment to stop mother-to-child transmission of the virus. The Cabinet stopped short of acknowledging the link between HIV and Aids, although it said it would act on the "premise" that HIV caused Aids.

Mr Mbeki clashed last year with the state-funded Medical Research Council over Aids and said crime and poverty were the biggest killers. In an interview on Monday, he continued to insist that Aids, which is killing one in nine South Africans, needed to be seen in the context of all the main causes of death, including tuberculosis and cancer. South Africa is ninth on the World Health Organisation's list of 22 states with the highest incidence of tuberculosis.

Mr Mbeki said: "We should all join hands in confronting Aids but also the entirety of the disease profile. We have to respond to the health challenge – including the Aids question – in a way that shows we are sensitive ... we are dealing with people. And we are not going to say we are succeeding in building a humane society when this society produces large numbers of avoidable deaths. Food, clean water, these things whose absence kills people."

He went on: "It's incorrect for us in government to respond to ill-health and disease merely from the health department. If we say, here are a variety of diseases which are linked to poverty, then we have got to say to the economic ministries, to social development: let us do co-ordinated programmes."

On Zimbabwe, Mr Mbeki said the United Nations had sent a delegation to assess food shortages, in line with a Commonwealth promise. "Everything has to be done to try to address these shortages."