Health news at a glance – February
From cholera to the gene map to Nkosi Johnson’s twelfth birthday – a summary of the health issues that featured in the news over the past month.
Cholera highlights need for rural sanitation
More than 1 000 new cholera cases have been reported each day in KwaZulu-Natal since the February 19. In total, 58 121 cases have been reported countrywide since August, while the death toll stands at 122. In KwaZulu-Natal which has the vast majority of cases, 69 rehydration centres have been set up and about 12 000 medical posts have been unfrozen to help fight the three-fold assault of cholera, malaria and AIDS. Fast tracking of sanitation for rural areas is now essential if the epidemic is not to spread and similar outbreaks are to be averted in future. The Department of Health has been praised by political parties and the World Health Organisation for its handling of the cholera epidemic so far. Less than 0,21% of patients have died since the epidemic broke out in August last year.
Only 5% of HIV positive pregnant moms to get Nevirapine
A national pilot project to prevent the transmission of HIV to infants covering about 5% of pregnant mothers in South Africa was reported in the media this month. Two hospitals in each province will function as “research sites” providing counselling, testing, the anti-retroviral drug Nevirapine and a six-month supply of free milk powder. Despite pressure to roll-out the programme as quickly as possible, the intention of the Health Department is to continue to delay the introduction of HIV screening for all pregnant mothers in South Africa until “operational challenges” in the introduction of Nevirapine can be ascertained.
Cheap HIV anti-retroviral drug offer
A triple combination anti-retroviral drug therapy has been offered to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) for R400 per month by Indian generic drug manufacturer Cipla Ltd. Cipla has also offered the drugs to the South African government for R600 per month. Current prices for the drug range from R2000 to R5000. MSF has written to the drug companies currently holding the patents on these drugs asking them to match Cipla’s offer. For the government to accept the offer, compulsory licenses will have to be issued.
Mounting Support for compulsory licensing and parallel importing of HIV/AIDS drugs
At a the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) march in Cape Town (Feb 13th), religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish and Anglican religions called on their communities to take up the struggle to stop pharmaceutical companies profiteering through patent rights at the expense of peoples’ lives.
The British Charity Oxfam called on Glaxo-SmithKline this month to withdraw their Constitutional Court Challenge to the South African government. Oxfam accused global pharmaceutical companies of waging “an undeclared drugs war” against the world’s poorest countries.
According to Oxfam, Glaxo-SmithKline’s annual turnover, which is about the same as South Africa’s gross national product, will not be affected. Drug companies will not lose profits because they do not make profits out of Africa since few Africans can afford the drugs.
The Democratic Alliance has also supported the government’s battle to allow parallel importing of HIV/AIDS drugs and argues that HIV/AIDS should be declared a national emergency so that the TRIPS intellectual property accord can be circumvented.
Human Genetic code is mapped
The mapping of the human genome promises to revolutionise medicine in coming decades, because illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and senile dementia have a strong genetic component. Knowing how each of the 30 000 or so genes go wrong will allow for breakthroughs in drug development so that drugs can be tailored to people’s particular genetic types.
The sequencing of human genetic code shows that there are far fewer human genes than anyone had predicted; about a third of what was expected. Human have about 30 000 genes, compared to the microscopic nematode worm with 18 000 and the humble fruitfly with 13 000. What makes humans more complex than more simple lifeforms is therefore clearly not the number of their genes. The study also suggests that far from being a blueprint, the human genetic code is only a guideline and that our upbringing and environment have a huge role to play in determining our destinies. It was previously argued that single genes might determine all human traits, including personality, mental health and sexual orientation. No genetic basis whatsoever for what people describe as “race” was found by the study.
February 19-25 launched Pregnancy Education Week and the rolling out of the “hands on” programme to decrease maternal mortality. A World Health Organisation report shows that South African women are 12 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related or childbirth complications than their first-world counterparts. Nearly a million South African women are pregnant at any one time, and more than 90% of them are unaware that pregnancy education is both necessary and available. The situation is very different in the private sector, where South African women have the highest caesarean rate in the world at 60% – triple that of the United States.
Good nutrition during pregnancy gives children higher IQ
Newly released research from University College, London draws attention to the importance of optimal nutrition during pregnancy. The study shows that the bigger the baby at birth ‘ the smarter it is likely to be, because brain development is dependent on nutrition in the womb.
A Maitland Abattoir worker was treated in isolation at Groote Schuur hospital after contracting Congo fever. The man is thought to have been infected on February 2 after being exposed to the blood of an infected animal. None of the 90 people who were in contact with him have displayed symptoms of the contagious disease which causes extreme bleeding after about four days and is fatal in approximately 60% of cases. The meat and blood from infected animals can only infect humans immediately after slaughter because the virus can’t live long outside the body. There is no need to panic about the safety of the Maitland abattoir’s meat. The only other route of transmission is via tick bite. Senior union members allegedly have documents showing that another abattoir worker contracted Congo Fever in 1999.
Presidential State of the Nation Address
President Thabo Mbeki did not mention AIDS during his opening of Parliament address on February 9, despite the fact that 250 000 South Africans died of the disease last year. Disappointed commentators have suggested that promises of socio-economic upliftment are worthless if the government cannot first and foremost commit itself to getting to grips with AIDS.
AIDS Advisory Panel report to be released
Health Minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has stated that the long-awaited AIDS Advisory Panel report is due to be released by the beginning of March. According to Tshbalala-Msimang, the finished report was “unscientific and untidy” and had to be sent back. The report outlines the conclusions of the international panel comprising both dissident and mainstream scientists convened by Mbeki in May and July last year to discuss, among other things, the relationship between HIV and AIDS.
SA doctors being lured to Canada
South Africa’s ambassador to Canada, Andre Jaquet, has requested that the Canadian government stop recruiting South Africa’s desperately needed doctors, arguing that it is unethical to lure doctors away from South Africa which has too few doctors to cope, especially in the face of the HIV epidemic. Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, president of the Medical research Council, has suggested that rich countries like Canada pay for every South African doctor they acquire.
AIDS and cholera stricken KwaZulu-Natal is now bracing itself for malaria, which claimed 342 lives last year. Six people have died of malaria since the beginning of the year with 1 403 cases reported in the north of the province.
Happy Birthday Nkosi
Nkosi Johnson, who was born with the HI virus, celebrated his 12th birthday on February 4. Nkosi’s high media profile has been widely debated in the media, with some arguing that millions of other orphans living with HIV/AIDS are being ignored.