Mbeki vows to step up AIDS fight
CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- South Africa's plan to intensify the fight against AIDS has been criticised by opposition and government politicians for not going far enough.
There is particular concern that AIDS drugs will not be made available countrywide in state hospitals.
President Thabo Mbeki's announced the plan on Friday in an upbeat state-of-the-nation address at the opening of parliament.
Addressing the country's AIDS epidemic at length, Mbeki said efforts to counter the epidemic would remain focussed on education and prevention, caring for the sick and developing an AIDS vaccine.
He said: "We have initiated discussions with some (pharmaceutical companies) to examine new ways of making drugs more affordable and to strengthen our health infrastructure."
He added: "Government, working in partnership with all sectors ... will intensify its comprehensive programme against AIDS, sexually transmitted disease, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases.
"In addition to the many campaigns to change our lifestyles for healthier living, the focus of our programmes in the coming period will be the improvement in quality of services in public health."
But Mbeki said his government would not move from its position of questioning the accepted medical theory that HIV causes AIDS and will continue to refuse to allow state hospitals to offer antiretroviral drugs to AIDS sufferers.
He said, however, the use of antiretroviral drugs to limit mother-to-child transmission during birth would continue at the 18 pilot sites identified around the country "and any new ones that may be decided upon."
But the leader of the opposition alliance and even Mbeki's own coalition partner expressed disappointed with the measures proposed by the president.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a minister in Mbeki's coalition cabinet and leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, told Reuters: "AIDS is the biggest challenge, the major disaster facing this country and we would have wished for something more specific and far-reaching."
Opposition leader Tony Leon of the Democratic Alliance said he had been disappointed by Mbeki's failure to break with policies that had failed to slow the growth of the epidemic, calling the speech "a tremendous missed opportunity."
Last year, AIDS activists won a court case compelling the government to provide the drug nevirapine to HIV positive mothers.
The drug reduces the chances of them passing the virus on to their children at birth.
But the government appealed against the ruling, saying the drug's safety remains unproven and insufficient infrastructure was in place to administer it.
An estimated 4.7 million South Africans -- one in nine -- are HIV positive, more than any other country in the world.
South Africa's state-funded Medical Research Council estimated in December that AIDS would kill between five and seven million South Africans by 2010 if the government did not intervene more actively to fight the disease.
The council said one in nine South Africans already carried the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS and said the disease accounted for at least a quarter of all deaths in 2001.
"Continuing work will be done to monitor the efficacy of anti-retroviral interventions against mother-to-child transmission in the sites already operational and any new ones that may be decided upon," Mbeki said.
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