Government’s controversial international panel of scientists to address HIV/AIDS will meet for the first time next month, and is expected to have concluded its discussions by June, according to Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
“We expect the panel to develop a comprehensive response to buttress our own framework that we have put together to address HIV/AIDS,” said Tshabalala-Msimang in an exclusive interview this week.
The panel, convened under the title, “AIDS in Africa: The way forward”, is being set up to develop a response to the epidemic that is relevant to developing countries.
However, controversy has arisen because “dissident” scientists who dispute that HIV causes AIDS have allegedly been asked to serve on the panel while prominent South African scientists have been excluded.
“I must be very truthful,” added Tshabalala-Msimang. “The issue of HIV causes AIDS has been raging ever since I have worked in the area of HIV/AIDS. But this has never deterred me from understanding that my duty is to alleviate the burden of the disease.”
She said that while the panel may want to discuss whether HIV causes AIDS, what government wanted is more ammunition in its fight against AIDS.
However, she said the AIDS “dissidents” had something to offer, and government was prepared to listen to them.
“We mustn’t think that whoever was a dissident yesterday stopped work because they got criticised,” said Tshabalala-Msimang. “They have continued to work and have discovered new things. But South Africans want to close their mind to these. It’s appalling.
“South Africans must understand that we don’t have a stupid government. We are able to reach our own conclusions on what we want’. We are not just going to say tomorrow that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.”
She added that while some South African HIV/AIDS experts may not be part of the “core group of the panel, the group will open up and they will be included in the panel’s work”.
The world’s model for addressing HIV/AIDS so far was based on how the disease had developed in America and Europe, predominantly amongst “gay, rich men”, said the minister.
“We need to locate AIDS within our own political and socio-economic experience. In South Africa, there are issues of poverty, malaria and sociological differences such as polygamy and and circumcision.
She said the developed world seemed finally to understand that the approach to fighting HIV/AIDS had to be broadened to include anti-poverty measures.
The donor agency USAIDS and the US Centre for Disease Control had recently agreed “for the first time, to assist with infrastructure, unlike in the past where we have been told to give AZT, give AZT.
“For the first time the Americans are now saying that they will also provide food parcels, so that lay counsellors can take these to destitute families affected by AIDS.”
* Tshabalala-Msimang said the results of the 1999 antenatal HIV study, the annual anonymous testing of pregnant women at hospitals and clinics in each province aimed at plotting the spread of HIV/AIDS, would be released very soon.
“The problem was someone [in one of the provinces] deviated from the methodology we had agreed on so we had to go back and redo part of the study. But I have it with me now and I am still going through it. We will release it very soon.” – Health-e News