South Africa calls for debt relief to help tackle Aids

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The Independent Online

Seeking to repair the confusion and political damage caused by President Thabo Mbeki's mixed messages over Aids, his government yesterday launched a new strategy for dealing with the virus. But it stopped short of pledging to provide drugs that can slow the progress of HIV in the four million South Africans estimated to be carrying it.

Seeking to repair the confusion and political damage caused by President Thabo Mbeki's mixed messages over Aids, his government yesterday launched a new strategy for dealing with the virus. But it stopped short of pledging to provide drugs that can slow the progress of HIV in the four million South Africans estimated to be carrying it.

Written for health professionals, the nine "policy guideline" booklets are based on the premise that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) leads to Aids. They thus firmly lay to rest speculation to the contrary by President Mbeki. However, they contain no pledge to manufacture or import affordable generic "anti-retrovirals" - the barrier drugs that slow the progression of the illnesses related to Aids.

"We have never said that HIV does not lead to Aids," the health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said in reply to a question from a foreign journalist. "Why don't you assist us in calling for debt to be cancelled and assist us to build the laboratories we need to monitor the people that you want us to put on anti-retrovirals?"

The economic and demographic impact of Aids in South Africa and Zimbabwe is considered by the United Nations to be the harshest in the world. UNAids estimates that 20 per cent of South Africans are HIV-positive and that up to half of all the country's teenagers will die from Aids-related illnesses.

Critics of the South African government say that President Mbeki's questioning of whether HIV leads to Aids has created fear and confusion. For most of this year, Dr Tshabalala-Msimang, a respected medical doctor, has been occupied with damage-limitation rather than policymaking.

But even as the government yesterday launched its booklets - advocating sexual abstinence and condom use, and listing vitamins and antibiotics among useful treatments - the debate over the issue hit a new low.

The African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape accused the white-led Democratic Alliance (DA), which governs the province, of trying to poison black people by giving them anti-retrovirals.

The ANC government justifies its opposition to the drugs - such as AZT and Nevirapine - on the grounds of cost, toxicity and lack of infrastructure.

Yesterday, Dr Tshabalala-Msimang said: "As far as AZT is concerned, our policy is that we shall not provide it [nationally] because it is beyond our means. If a drug company comes and says we can have it free for five years, that is not enough, because what about the next five years?"

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