November 26, 2008

Study checks toll of S. Africa’s AIDS plan

The South African government could have prevented thousands of premature, AIDS-related deaths if it had provided antiretroviral drugs, a U.S. study says.

The Harvard University study concluded the policies arose from former President Thabo Mbeki's denial of well-established scientific data about the viral cause of AIDS and the vital role of antiretroviral drugs in treating it, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

After Mbeki left office in September, his successor, Kgalema Motlanthe, replaced health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who proposed garlic, lemon juice and beetroot as AIDS treatments, replacing her with Barbara Hogan.

I feel ashamed that we have to own up to what Harvard is saying, Hogan told the Times.

The South African government for years did not provide antiretroviral medicines even though neighboring countries with AIDS epidemics of similar scale did, the Harvard study reported.

By their calculations the Harvard researchers estimated by 2005, South Africa could have been helping half those in need but had reached only 23 percent. The 330,000 South Africans who died because they lacked treatment and the 35,000 babies who died because they were infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, together lost at least 3.8 million years of life, the study said.

Max Essex, the virologist who has led the Harvard School of Public Health's AIDS research program for the past 20 years and who oversaw the study, called South Africa's response to AIDS under Mbeki a case of bad, or even evil, public health.